Romeo and Juliet, Study Guide, Shakespeare

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Romeo and Juliet
A Study Guide
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Type of Work

Romeo and Juliet is a stage tragedy written between 1593 and 1596. The play centers on a teenage boy and girl who fall in love and marry against the wishes of their parents. The drama probably debuted on the stage in 1596 or 1597. Over the centuries, it has become an audience favorite. The film and television industries have produced more than a dozen renditions of the play, including animated productions. Many books and other plays also loosely follow the plot of Romeo and Juliet.


The publication history of Romeo and Juliet began in London in 1596 or 1597, when printers John Danter and Edward Allde produced a mistake-ridden quarto version of the play copied in the audience during a performance. (A quarto was a small sheet of paper folded once to form four pages.) Thomas Creede published a corrected quarto version in 1599. This version was republished in 1609. A fourth quarto version—based on the first and second quartos—appeared more than a decade later, probably in 1622. In 1623, Romeo and Juliet and thirty-five other Shakespeare plays were published by two of the late author's friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, in a book entitled Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. This book has become known as the First Folio. (A folio was a large sheet of paper folded once to form four pages.) Most versions of Shakespeare's plays published today are based on the First Folio.

The publishing industry in Shakespeare's England operated under the control of the Worshipful Company of Stationers, a trade organization which the government established and supervised in order to guard against the publication of subversive books or books unduly critical of the government. If a play met government standards—that is, if it did not attempt to inflame the people against the crown—a publisher could print and sell the play. Authors of plays often had misgivings about committing their work to print, as the following quotation points out.

The plays of the first professional companies [in Shakespeare's day] were written mainly by actors themselves. . . . The players were reluctant to allow their dramas to be printed. They apparently thought that if a play could be read, few people would wish to see it acted. They may also have feared that their plays, if printed, would be appropriated for acting by rival companies. This reluctance explains the fact that only eighteen of Shakespeare's plays were printed during his lifetime. They were published in small pamphlets called quartos, which sold for only sixpence a piece.—Alden, Raymond MacDonald. A Shakespeare Handbook. Revised and enlarged by Oscar James Campbell. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries, 1970, page 74.


The main source for the plot of the play was The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), by Arthur Brooke (death circa 1563). Brooke's work, a long narrative poem, was based on a French version (1559) of the tragedy by Pierre Boiastuau (circa 1517-1566). In turn, Boiastuau based his story on a 1554 Italian work by Matteo Bandello (1485-1561), a monk and author of two hundred fourteen tales. Sources for certain plot devices or plot content probably included a short-story collection called Il Novellino (1476), by Masuccio of Salerno (1410-1475); Hystoria Novellamente Ritrovata di Due Nobili Amanti (The Newly Retrieved Tale of Two Noble Lovers, 1531), by Luigi da Porto (1485-1529); and the ancient mythological tale of two Babylonian lovers, Pyramis and Thisbe. Ovid (43 BC-AD 17 or 18) was among the ancient writers who told the story of Pyramis and Thisbe. According to his version of the tale, Pyramus mistakenly believes a lion has killed Thisbe. Brokenhearted, he kills himself. Thisbe is still alive, however. But when she discovers the body of Pyramus, she also kills herself. 


The play opens in Verona, Italy, near mid-morning on a Sunday in July. It ends four days later in the same city shortly after sunrise. Verona is in northern Italy about sixty-five miles west of Venice. The ruler of Verona at the time of the legendary Montague-Capulet feud was Bartolomeo della Scalla, who died in 1304. (In Italian the Scalla name is Scaligeri; in Latin, it is Scaligerus). Part of the action in the play takes place in Mantua. Romeo goes there after the Prince of Verona banishes him. Mantua is in the Lombardy region of Italy, just south of the Swiss border.


The tone of the play is highly emotional, exhibiting powerful feelings of love, hatred, anger, joy, sorrow, regret, and despair. In discussing the deep emotions in the play, essayist and literary critic William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote the following:

If [Romeo and Juliet] has the sweetness of the rose, it has its freshness too; if it has the languor of the nightingale's song, it has also its giddy transport; if it has the softness of a southern spring, it is as glowing and as bright. There is nothing of a sickly and sentimental cast. Romeo and Juliet are in love, but they are not love-sick. Every thing speaks the very soul of pleasure, the high and healthy pulse of the passions: the heart beats, the blood circulates and mantles throughout. Their courtship is not an insipid interchange of sentiments lip-deep, learnt at secondhand from poems and plays,—made up of beauties of the most shadowy kind, of "fancies wan that hang the pensive head," of evanescent smiles and sighs that breathe not, of delicacy that shrinks from the touch and feebleness that scarce supports itself, an elaborate vacuity of thought, and an artificial dearth of sense, spirit, truth, and nature! It is the reverse of all this. It is Shakespear all over, and Shakespear when he was young. (Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. London: C. H. Reynell, 1817)


Romeo and Juliet: Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet are immature teenagers—in fact, Juliet is not yet fourteen—who fall deeply in love even though their families are bitter enemies. Impatient and rash, they seize the moment and marry in secret. But further efforts to conceal their actions go awry and end tragically. In world literature they have become archetypal ill-fated lovers. Countless other literary and artistic works, including the Academy Award-winning film West Side Story, have been based on this Shakespeare drama. Romeo and Juliet are the main characters, or protagonists. Their antagonists include the opposing family clans, as well as these families' prejudices. In addition, Romeo and Juliet's own immaturity works against them.
Montague, Capulet: Heads of the feuding families.
Lady Montague: Wife of Montague.
Lady Capulet: Wife of Capulet.
Escalus (ESK uh lihs): Prince of Verona.
Paris: Young nobleman, kinsman of Escalus. The Capulets try to pressure Juliet into accepting a marriage proposal from Paris.
Nurse of Juliet: Elderly and unattractive woman who is Juliet's attendant, confidante, and messenger. She has been with Juliet since the girl was an infant, serving as her wet nurse and in many ways as her mother. (The nurse had a daughter, Susan, who was the same age as Juliet. After the child died, the nurse focused her attentions on Juliet). At Juliet's behest, she meets with Romeo to sound him out on his intentions toward Juliet. Her homely language and her preoccupation with the practical, everyday world contrast sharply with the elevated language of Romeo and Juliet and their preoccupation with the idealistic world of love.
Old Man: Cousin to Capulet.
Mercutio: Kinsman of the prince and friend of Romeo. He recognizes the utter stupidity of the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues and understands that overpowering, passionate love—the kind of love that ignores reason and common sense—can lead to tragedy.
Benvolio (ben VOHL yo or ben VOHL e o): Nephew of Montague, cousin and friend to Romeo.
Tybalt (TIH bult): Headstrong nephew of Lady Capulet. Ever ready to fight the Montagues at the slightest provocation, he personifies the hatred generated by feuding families.
Friar Laurence, Friar John: Franciscan priests (robed Catholic monks who follow a regimen established by St. Francis of Assisi). Friar Laurence marries Romeo and Juliet, hoping the marriage will end the Montague-Capulet feud, and tries to help them overcome their problems with a scheme that, unfortunately, goes awry. Friar John, a minor character, is charged with carrying a letter to Romeo.
Balthasar (BAL thuh zar): Servant of Romeo.
Sampson, Gregory: Servants of Capulet.
Peter: Assistant of Juliet's nurse.
Abraham: Servant of Montague.
Apothecary: Poverty-stricken with "famine" in his cheeks, he illegally sells Romeo a deadly poison. Thus, he provides an interesting contrast to Romeo in that he breaks a law to stay alive whereas Romeo breaks a law (the moral law against suicide) to die.
Rosaline (ROZ uh lin): Niece of Lord Capulet and tshe girl with whom Romeo is infatuated before he meets Juliet. Rosaline speaks not lines in the play, but is referred to by Romeo, Benvolio, Mercutio, and Friar Laurence. Oddly, actor David Garrick omitted her character from his 1748 production of Romeo and Juliet in the belief that Romeo's abandonment of her for Juliet was unrealistic.
Page of Paris
Another Page
An Officer
Chorus: The chorus recites the prologue preceding the first act. The prologue sets the scene, Verona, and tells of the "ancient grudge" between the Montague and Capulet families. It contains two of the play’s most famous lines: “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.” The chorus also recites a prologue before Act 2.
First Servingman, Second Servingman, Third Servingman: Workers in the Capulet home.
Maskers: Masked guests at the Capulet party in the first act.
Angelica: Lord Capulet speaks this name in line 8 of the fourth scene of Act 4. He appears to be addressing the nurse, but it is possible that he is referring to his wife.
Various Citizens of Verona
Relatives of the Capulets and Montagues
Guards, Watchmen, Attendants

Plot Summary

Romeo Montague absolutely adores Juliet Capulet. Juliet Capulet absolutely adores Romeo Montague. However, the Montague family absolutely despises the Capulet family, and vice versa, because of an old grudge. How is it possible for Romeo and Juliet to love and live happily in so poisonous an atmosphere? That is the central issue of this play.

In a prologue to Act 1, an actor called “the chorus” recites a sonnet in which he describes the bitter hatred separating the Montagues and Capulets (residents of Verona, a city in northern Italy about sixty-five miles west of Venice and the Adriatic coast) and identifies Romeo and Juliet as lovers who had the misfortune to be born into warring families. The chorus says, “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes [the Montagues and the Capulets] / A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life" (5-6). Take their life appears to have a double-meaning: first, that Romeo and Juliet come into existence; second, in a foreshadowing of future events, that they go out of existence by taking their own lives.

So it is that, from the very beginning of their existence as human beings within the wombs of their mothers, Romeo and Juliet are doomed by Fate as children of hatred. So deep is the enmity between the two families that the friends of the Montagues and the friends of the Capulets are also enemies. In the first scene of Act 1, two servants of the Capulets, Sampson and Gregory, encounter two servants of the Montagues, Abraham and Balthasar, on a street. Sampson places his thumb between his teeth, then flicks it forward at the Montague servants. This insulting gesture carries the same meaning as an upturned middle finger in modern America. Verbal insults follow and swords cross. Tybalt, a belligerent Capulet ally, lashes out at Benvolio, a friend of Romeo Montague, for attempting to make peace, saying: “. . . Peace! I hate the word, / As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee" (1.1.52-53). The ruckus attracts citizens, peace officers, supporters of the Montagues and Capulets, and eventually Lord and Lady Capulet and Lord and Lady Montague. A brawl ensues. The Prince of Verona, Escalus, intervenes and ends the fray with these stern words: “If ever you disturb our streets again, / Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace" (1.1.82-83).

Romeo is not among the street brawlers, for he has been off brooding in a sycamore grove and nearby woods over a young lady who is his heart’s delight, a young lady who denies him her affections. But her name is Rosaline, not Juliet. Rosaline, Lord Capulet's niece, is so fair, Romeo says, that when she dies, all that is beautiful in the world will die with her. However, Rosaline vows to live a life of chastity. She will not yield to love. Nor will she “bide the encounter of assailing eyes, / Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold” (1.1.205-206).

When Lord Capulet holds a dinner party attended by everyone who is anyone in Verona—including the city's most winsome young ladies, Rosaline among them—Romeo attends to see Rosaline and measure her against the other comely maidens. Surely she will outshine them all. Because of the hatred dividing the Capulets and the Montagues, Romeo wears a mask. His friends Benvolio and Mercutio also attend, likewise disguised. Lord Capulet welcomes all the gentlemen attending the party, including the masqueraders, and invites them to dance, saying, "Ladies that have their toes / Unplagu'd with corns will have a bout with you" (1.5.11-12). And then Romeo notices Juliet. She is flawlessly exquisite; she is stunning, gorgeous, ravishing; she is beyond compare. All thoughts of Rosaline vanish. There is only Juliet. Unable to contain himself, Romeo declares:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! (1.5.41-44)
[Ethiope: Ethiopian]

Tybalt, Lord Capulet's nephew, recognizes Romeo's voice and threatens violence, asking a boy to bring him his rapier (a sword). But Lord Capulet, not wishing to ruin the party, steps in to keep the peace, noting that Romeo is behaving in a gentlemanly manner. Juliet, meanwhile, has noticed Romeo—and fallen deeply in love. She and Romeo exchange beautiful words that seal their love.

ROMEO: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
JULIET: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss. (1.5.93-100)
[palmer: Visitor to the Holy Land.]

Later that night, Romeo climbs the wall behind the Capulet house and enters an orchard on the Capulet property. Benvolio and Mercutio, following behind, call out for him, but Romeo does not respond. Mercutio, sensing that Romeo's sudden obsession with Juliet will go amiss, says: "If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark" (2.1.38). His words foreshadow the tragic events that follow. When Juliet appears alone at a window overlooking the Capulet orchard, Romeo, observing her from below, says:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she. (2.2.4-8)
[soft: Hush; stop what you are doing; pay attention.]

Juliet then unburdens the weight of her thoughts:

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. (2.2.37-40)
[Wherefore: Why; for what reason.]

After Romeo announces himself to her, they vow undying love. Romeo visits a priest, Friar Laurence, the next day to tell him of his love for Juliet, and the good Franciscan approves of the relationship, believing it will be the key to ending the Montague-Capulet feud. Later, Juliet sends her nurse to Romeo to sound him out on his intentions, and he tells her that Juliet should come to Friar Laurence's cell to confess her sins, then marry Romeo. After the nurse reports back to Juliet, all goes according to plan, and Romeo and Juliet become husband and wife, although they make no public announcement of their marriage.

On his way back from the wedding, Romeo encounters his friend Mercutio quarreling with Tybalt. Romeo tries to pacify them, to no avail, and Tybalt mortally wounds Mercutio. Mercutio—who understands the stupidity and folly of the Montague-Capulet feud—curses the two families, saying, "A plague o' [on] both your houses!" (3.1.61). He repeats these words three times before dying. Romeo, in turn, kills Tybalt. The fighting has attracted citizens of Verona, including the prince; he banishes Romeo.

When Juliet asks her nurse for news of Romeo, the nurse says, "Ah, well-a-day! he's dead, he's dead, he's dead!" (3.2.41). She is referring to Tybalt, her good friend; Juliet thinks she is speaking of Romeo and wonders whether he has killed himself. The nurse then recounts the events of the violent encounter: Romeo killed Tybalt, Juliet's kin. At first, Juliet criticizes Romeo for committing such a deed but moments later scolds herself for speaking harsh words about her beloved husband. Before leaving the city, Romeo returns to Juliet and spends the night with her. At dawn, as the lovers gaze out the window, Romeo tells Juliet to

Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east:
Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.(3.5.9-13)

Juliet replies,

Yon light is not daylight, I know it,
It is some meteor that the sun exhales,
To be to thee this night a torch-bearer,
And light thee on thy way to Mantua:
Therefore stay yet; thou need’st not to be gone. (3.5.14-18)

Romeo tarries awhile longer, then flees to Mantua, a city in Italy's Lombardy region to the west. Meanwhile, Juliet's mother announces that her daughter must marry Paris, a nobleman. Desperate for help, Juliet asks Friar Laurence for advice. He tells her to consent to the wedding, then drink a potion that will make her appear dead. After the Capulets lay her to rest in the family burial vault, the friar tells her, he and Romeo will rescue her. Juliet agrees to the plan, and Friar Laurence sends Friar John to deliver a message to Romeo that will inform him of the scheme. But, by accident, the message goes undelivered.

In her bed chamber, Juliet takes out the vial containing the potion. She is fearful that it may not work. Overcoming that fear, she then worries that the potion may actually be a poison that Friar Laurence had prepared for her so that he will not have to be dishonored by marrying her to Paris while she is already married to Romeo. However, she overcomes this fear as well, then takes the drug and collapses onto the bed. When wedding preparations are under way in the Capulet household, Lord Capulet tells the nurse to awaken Juliet. But the nurse discovers her lying lifeless and stiff. Lord Capulet observes that "Death lies on her like an untimely frost" (4.5.34).

When news of Juliet's "death" reaches Romeo, he purchases a potion of his own—a deadly one—from an apothecary and returns to Verona to die alongside Juliet. At the burial vault, he encounters Paris and his page. Paris is there to lay flowers at Juliet's grave. The adversaries quarrel, exchanging insults, then fight. While the page runs out for help, Romeo slays Paris, then takes a last, longing look at Juliet, saying,

                O my love! my wife!
Death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:
Thou art not conquer’d; beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death’s pale flag is not advanced there. (5.3.94-99)

Romeo then swallows the poison and dies. After Juliet awakens and discovers the bodies, grief overwhelms her and she kills herself, using Romeo's dagger. When the page returns with three watchmen, they discover the bloody scene and one of the watchmen fetches the Montague and Capulet families and the Prince of Verona. Others come running to the scene. Lord Montague arrives alone, telling the prince that his wife died during the night of grief brought on by Romeo’s exile. When everyone sees the bodies, the prince calls for quiet and calm while he inquires about the cause of the deaths. Friar Laurence comes forth and explains in detail the plot he conceived to feign Juliet’s death. Next, Romeo’s servant, Balthasar, says he conveyed news of Juliet’s apparent demise to Romeo, who then returned from Mantua. Finally, the page of Paris recounts what he saw at the tomb. The prince reproaches the Montagues and the Capulets, saying, "See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love" (5.3.313-314). The feuding families then reconcile, and the prince observes:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things:
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo. (5.3.327-332)


The exposition of a play consists of early developments that cause conflict and plot complications. In Romeo and Juliet, the exposition includes the confrontation between the Montague and Capulet servants in Act 1, the secret marriage of Romeo and Juliet at the end of Act 2, and the street fight in Act 3 in which Tybalt kills Mercutio and Romeo kills Tybalt.


 In the prologue to Act 1, an actor playing the chorus recites a sonnet in which he describes the bitter hatred dividing the Montagues and Capulets and identifies Romeo and Juliet as lovers who had the misfortune to be born into warring families: “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes [the Montagues and the Capulets] / A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life” (lines 5-6). "Take their life" appears to have a double-meaning: first, that they come into existence; second, in a foreshadowing of tragic ending, that they go out of existence by taking their own lives. In another foreshadowing, Romeo recites the following lines in referring to Juliet as the sun at daybreak, envied by the moon:

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she. (2.2.6-8)

The foreshadowing occurs in Romeo’s suggestion that the sun “euthanize” the grief-stricken moon. At the end of the play, Romeo and Juliet both kill themselves to end their grief.

Climax and Denouement

The climax of a play or another fictional literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Romeo and Juliet, according to the first definition, occurs when Romeo kills Tybalt, causing a turning point that begins with Romeo's banishment. According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act, when Romeo, Juliet, and Paris die. The denouement (conclusion), or falling action, occurs when Lord Montague, the Capulets, the prince, and others arrive at the scene of the suicides and commiserate. Friar Laurence, Balthasar, and the page inform them of events leading up to the suicide.

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The Beauty of Romantic Love

Romantic love can be beautiful and ennobling. The love between Romeo and Juliet is sublimely beautiful. Not only do they feel deeply for each other, but they also respect each other. Neither attempts to impose his or her will on the other; neither places his or her welfare above the other. Realizing that love and lust are not the same, they prize each other spiritually as well as physically. Therefore, meeting in secret from time to time to gratify their powerful sexual desires without the permanent commitment of marriage is out of the question. Such an arrangement would cheapen their relationship; it would reduce their love to a mere bestial craving. Consequently, at great risk, they decide to sanctify their relationship with a marriage ceremony binding them to eternal love. Theirs is no Hollywood marriage for three months or three years, based on selfish sexual gratification; theirs is a marriage meant for eternity, based on unselfish commitment to the spouse.

Love at First Sight

Romeo and Juliet fall in love upon first seeing each other at Lord Capulet's party. Does their immediate attraction to each other suggest that their love is shallow, based only on physical qualities? One can argue that point. Indeed, Friar Lawrence—wondering whether Romeo exhibits the symptoms of passion rather than true love—comments,
Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? young men's love then lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes. (2.3.69-72)
But one can also argue that love at first sight, as opposed to lust at first sight, suggests that each lover sees something of the soul in the countenance of the other. Romeo indicates as much when he observes that Juliet's beauty is transcendent, "too dear" for earth.

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! (1.5.41-44)

 How Passion Overtakes Reason

Passion can overtake reason and common sense. So powerful is the love between Romeo and Juliet that it subjugates reason and common sense as guiding forces and causes the lovers to take dangerous risks. Their behavior, as well as events over which they have no control, vernalize their relationship, giving it little time to reach full growth. In the end, their overpowering feelings cause them to take their own lives.


The hatred between the Montagues and Capulets it promotes constant tension and violence, resulting in street brawls, the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio, and, of course, the deaths of their own children, Romeo, Juliet, and Paris.


Immaturity and inexperience can lead to tragic endings. This theme reaches its full development when callow Romeo and Juliet, believing all is lost, act out of the passion of the moment and commit suicide. If they had had the wisdom to consider that their whole lives lay before them, that other paths lay open to them, they surely would have embraced a fabian tactic to whittle away the opposition.

Judging People

Shakespeare makes clear that one should judge people by their character and personal qualities, not by their name or social standing. As Juliet observes: “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” (2.2.47-48).

Inherited Guilt

Innocent children sometimes pay for the sins of their parents. Romeo and Juliet forfeit their lives partly as a result of their parents' hatred and prejudice.

Fate vs Free Will

Fate acts through human folly. As in Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, and other plays of Shakespeare, the force of Fate seems all-powerful and ineluctable. It is as if human beings are puppets who have no control over their actions. From the very beginning, Romeo and Juliet are "star-cross'd" as children of "fatal loins." But Shakespeare knows that the events leading to tragedy cannot be explained away so simply. Human beings have free will; they have the power to create their futures. Unfortunately, too often they lack the wisdom or moral strength to make the right decisions and, instead, pursue a course of action which seems fated for disaster.

Money as a Root of Ruination

For information on this theme, see The Role of the Apothecary.

Language and Literary Devices

Puns and Double Meanings

Romeo and Juliet explodes with verbal fireworks. As one of Shakespeare’s early dramas, the play was a vehicle through which he attempted to startle audiences with his ability to manipulate language by creating puns, rhyming poetry, and striking figures of speech. The play opens with the chorus reciting a poem. Then, in the opening dialogue, Shakespeare spices his writing with puns and double-entendres, as when the servants Sampson and Gregory make veiled sexual references:

GREGORY: The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.
SAMPSON: ’Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the maids, and cut off their heads.
GREGORY: The heads of the maids?
SAMPSON: Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads; take it in what sense thou wilt. (1.1.14-17)

  Such language is crude, but it serves a purpose: to contrast with elevated, lyrical imagery used later by Romeo and Juliet to express their love. Mercutio, a brilliant punster and shaper of imagery, uses his way with words to criticize the stupidity of the feuding families and the folly of blind passion. Sometimes, a single passage he speaks contains a gamut of language devices. Note, for example, the following prose passage, spoken when he sees Romeo approaching. It includes references or allusions to the Italian sonneteer Petrarch (1304-1374) and his lover, Laura; to Dido (the Carthaginian queen in the Aeneid, the great ancient Roman epic by Vergil, 70-19 BC);  to Egypt's Queen Cleopatra (69-30 BC); to Helen of Troy (whose beauty precipitated the Trojan War in ancient Greece); to Hero (a priestess of the goddess Aphrodite in Greek mythology); and to Thisbe, a character in a mythological tale who kills herself after discovering the dead body of her lover, Pyramus.

Now is he [Romeo] for the numbers [poems] that Petrarch flowed in: Laura to his [Romeo’s] lady was but a kitchen-wench; marry, she had a better love to be-rhyme her; Dido a dowdy; Cleopatra a gipsy; Helen and Hero hildings and harlots; Thisbe a grey eye or so, but not to the purpose. Signior Romeo, bon jour! there’s a French salutation to your French slop. (2.4.21)

Oxymoron and Paradox

Paradoxes and oxymorons appear frequently in Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps the most famous oxymoron in the play is the one occurring in the last two words of this line: “Good-night, good-night! parting is such sweet sorrow" (2. 2. 201). An oxymoron consists of two contradictory words occurring one after the other. A paradox consists of contradictory words separated by intervening words. In the second scene of Act 3, when Juliet criticizes Romeo for killing Tybalt while praising him as her beloved, she manages to squeeze in six oxymorons and four paradoxes:

Beautiful tyrant (oxymoron, line 80)
Fiend angelical (oxymoron, line 80)
Dove-feather'd raven (oxymoron, line 81)
Wolvish-ravening lamb (oxymoron, line 81)
Damned saint (oxymoron, line 84)
Honourable villain (oxymoron, line 84)
Despised substance of divinest show (paradox, line 83)
Spirit of a fiend in moral paradise of such sweet flesh (paradox, lines 87-88)
Book containing such vile matter so fairly bound (paradox, lines 88-89)
Deceit should dwell in such a gorgeous palace (paradox, lines 89-90)

Examples of Other Figures of Speech


Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of syllables, as indicated by the boldfaced letters below.

Bid a sick man in sadness make his will (1.1.194)

She will not stay the siege of loving terms. (1.1.204)
[Note that the "s" sound in she differs from the "s" sound in stay and siege. Therefore, she does not alliterate with stay and siege.]

Her high forehead, and her scarlet lip. (2.1.23)

Thou art thyself though, not a Montague. (2.2.43)

Then love-devouring death do what he dare. (2.6.8)


Anaphora is the repetition of a word, phrase, clause, or sentence at the beginning of word groups occurring one after the other, as indicated by the boldfaced words below.

There’s no trust,          
No faith, no honesty in men; all naught,    
All perjur’d, all dissemblers, all forsworn.          
Ah! where’s my man? give me some aqua vitae:          
These griefs, these woes, these sorrows make me old. (3.2.91-95)


Apostrophe is a figure of speech in which a character or the author of a work addresses a thing, a dead person, an absent person, or an abstraction. Here is an example in which Juliet addresses the night.

                                  Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black. (3.2.12-13)


Assonance is the repetition of a vowel sound without repetition of a consonant sound. Use of bite and like in a line of poetry constitutes assonance. Like repeats the "i" sound of bite but not the consonant sound ("t") that follows the "i." Here are examples of assonance from Romeo and Juliet.

When he bestrides the lazy-pacing cloud (2.2.35)

That vast shore wash’d with the furthest sea (2.2.89)

Bid me go into a new-made grave (4.1.88)


Hyperbole is an exaggeration or overstatement, as the following examples demonstrate.

A sea nourish’d with lovers’ tears (1.1.182)

The brightness of her cheek would shame [the] stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night. (2.2.21-22)

Irony, Dramatic

 Dramatic irony is a situation in a play or another literary work in which the audience or reader grasps the irony or incongruity of the words or attitude of a character when the character does not. In simpler terms, the audience or reader is aware of a plot development of which a character is unaware. An example of this figure of speech occurs in the fifth scene of Act 3 (lines 72-111) when Juliet pretends to her mother that she hates Romeo for killing Tybalt and that she desires vengeance. The audience well knows, of course, what Lady Capulet does not: that Juliet desperately loves Romeo. Another example occurs when Romeo sees the body of Juliet at the Capulet tomb site. He believes she is dead, although he notices that her face is still lifelike. He says,
                          Beauty’s ensign yet  
Is crimson in thy [Juliet's] lips and in thy cheeks,  
And death’s pale flag is not advanced there. (5.3.97-99)

The audience is aware, of course, that Juliet is indeed alive and that there is no reason for Romeo to swallow the poison he purchased in Mantua.


A metaphor is a comparison between unlike things. In making the comparison, it does not use like, as, or than. Note the following examples.

              What ho! you men, you beasts,
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins (1.1.69-71)
[Comparison of the intensity of rage to fire]
[Comparison of spurting blood to purple fountains]

               An hour before the worshipp’d sun
Peer’d forth the golden window of the east,
A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad. (1.1.104-106)
[Comparison of the sun to a seeing creature]
[Comparison of the eastern horizon to a window]

                              I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground I cannot move. (1.4.17-18)
[Comparison of the soul to lead]

Care keeps his watch in every old man’s eye,
And where care lodges, sleep will never lie. (2.3.39-40)
[Comparison of care to an observer]

When the sun sets, the air doth drizzle dew;
But for the sunset of my brother’s son 
It rains downright. (3.5.135-137)
[Capulet compares Tybalt's death to a sunset.]


Personification is a type of metaphor that compares a place, a thing, or an idea to a person. Some apostrophes are also personifications. Following are examples of personification from Romeo and Juliet.

And more inconstant than the wind, who woos
Even now the frozen bosom of the north,
And, being anger’d, puffs away from thence,
Turning his face to the dew-dropping south. (1.4.109-112)
[Comparison of the wind to a person. This comparison is also an example of apostrophe.]

Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir;  
My daughter he hath wedded. (4.5.45-46)


Imagery is the use of specific, concrete language—including figures of speech—to help readers or audiences picture a scene, an object, a character, etc. Shakespeare was particularly adept at creating vivid imagery. Following are examples.

Light and Darkness

Perhaps the most memorable imagery in the play centers on figures of speech involving light and darkness. Following are examples of such imagery.

One fire burns out another’s burning,
One pain is lessen’d by another’s anguish. (1.2.42-43)
[Paradox and repetition make memorable these lines spoken by Benvolio. There are two paradoxes: fire acting as a fire extinguisher and pain acting as a comforter.

It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! (1.5.42-44)
[Romeo compares Juliet to a brightly shining jewel set against a black background.]

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she. (2.2.4-8)
[In a metaphor, Romeo compares Juliet to the light of the morning sun.

The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,
Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light,
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day’s path and Titan’s fiery wheels (2.3.3-6)
[After rising in his cell at dawn, Friar Laurence observes a sunrise overtaking darkness.]

Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night,
Whiter than new snow on a raven’s back. (3.2.19-21)
[In a metaphor, Juliet compares Romeo to “day in night.”]


The play also abounds in nature imagery, as in the following passages:

Many a morning hath he [Romeo] there been seen, 
With tears augmenting the fresh morning’s dew,
Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs:
But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the furthest east begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora’s bed,
Away from light steals home my heavy son. (1.1.116-122)
[Romeo's father compares the signs of his son's melancholy to dew and clouds. When the sun draws back curtains to reveal dawn, Romeo goes home.]

This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet. (2.2.129-130)
[Juliet speaks metaphors comparing love to a budding flower and the growing season to the ripening breath of summer.]

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite. (2.2.141-143)
[Juliet compares the width and depth of her love to the width and depth of the sea.]

The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb;
What is her burying grave that is her womb, (2.3.11-12)
[Friar Laurence observes that the earth is the mother of nature and that her life-giving womb is also a tomb.]

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet. (2.2.47-48)
[In a metaphor, Juliet compares hers and Romeo’s surnames to a flower.

A plague o’ both your houses!
They have made worms’ meat of me. (3.1.70-71)
[Mortally wounded by Tybalt, Romeo’s friend Mercutio curses the Houses of Montague and Capulet. Worms' meat, a metaphor referring to his body, means that Mercutio knows he is about to die and that worms will feed on his flesh after he is buried.]

The Role of the Apothecary

Mantua law forbids the sale of lethal poison under penalty of death. Nevertheless, the apothecary agrees to sell Romeo a dram of it. The brief scene in which they conclude the transaction supports an important motif: Money can ruin lives. Lady Capulet introduces this theme when she pressures Juliet to marry Paris for his wealth, saying, “So shall you share all that he doth possess” (1.3.100). Romeo and the apothecary continue the motif when Romeo seeks to purchase the means to kill himself and the apothecary accepts the money to provide this means. Romeo, distraught and desperate, entices the poverty-stricken apothecary with an offer of forty ducats:

Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness,
And fear'st to die? famine is in thy cheeks,
Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes,
Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back;
The world is not thy friend nor the world's law;
The world affords no law to make thee rich;
Then be not poor, but break it, and take this. (5.1.75-81)

The apothecary provides the poison, well knowing he is committing a heinous crime. He attempts to justify his decision, saying, “My poverty, but not my will, consents.” Romeo, well aware of the power of money to work evil, ends the scene, with these words:

There is thy gold, worse poison to men's souls,
Doing more murders in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.
I sell thee poison; thou hast sold me none. (5.1.87-90)

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Envy Triggers the Family Feud

Romeo and Juliet opens with a street brawl demonstrating the depth of hatred between the Capulet and Montague families—a hatred so profound that it inflames not only the families’ members and their Verona kinsmen but also the families’ servants and neighbors. The mêlée raises two important questions: What started the Capulet-Montague feud? Is there a way to end it? Before considering those questions, let us first review what happens when the play begins.

In Scene 1, Sampson and Gregory—servants of Juliet’s parents, the Capulets—are walking on a Verona street when Sampson vows not to grovel before anyone associated with the Montagues. “We’ll not carry coals” (1.1.3), he says, an expression meaning that he will not defer or kowtow to Montague supporters as if he were a lowly coal carrier currying favor with a client. Instead, he says, he will draw his sword and use it. There is irony in his statement, for he is carrying hot coals of animosity for the Montagues. Sampson also says in a sexual innuendo that he will vent his wrath on Montague women, as well as Montague men:

      SAMPSON: I will show myself a tyrant: when I
      have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the
      maids, and cut off their heads.
      GREGORY: The heads of the maids?
      SAMPSON: Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads;
      take it in what sense thou wilt. (1.1.15-17)

 Sampson and Gregory then encounter two Montague servants, Abraham and Balthasar, and pick a fight. The four men draw swords and wield. When Benvolio, Montague’s nephew, comes by and attempts to break up the fight, Tybalt, Lady Capulet’s nephew, is attracted to the fray, believing Benvolio is involved. He draws against Benvolio, and they, too, fight. Citizens with clubs then rush to the scene and join the brawl. After them, the heads of the feuding families, old Montague and Capulet, join the fighting with their wives. Finally, the Prince of Verona intervenes, threatening the citizens with torture unless they disband. He threatens Montague and Capulet with death unless they do the same. The brawl ends.

Now, then, what caused the Capulet-Montague feud, which the prologue says is of ancient origin? Although Shakespeare does not answer this question in his play, the source on which he based the play—The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), by Arthur Brooke, does provide an answer: envy. According to Brooke, the ancestors of the Capulets and Montagues were esteemed, well-to-do aristocrats who wished to be the center of attention. Consequently, the Capulets were jealous of the Montagues, and vice versa. And so, Brooke says, a feud was born: "Of grudging envy's root, black hate and rancour grew / As, of a little spark, oft riseth mighty fire."

In Shakespeare's play, the warring Montagues and Capulets do not mention the cause of the feud. It may well be that they are unaware of it—or forgot it—for it began so long before their time. One thing is certain, though: both families despise each other. Ancient grudges are like that—in politics and religion, in ethnic and national rivalries, in family relationships. It is all stupid, senseless. And that is a key point that Shakespeare is making in the play.

Against this backdrop of chronic rancor and malice, a Capulet and a Montague fall deeply in love. The lovers, Romeo and Juliet, are young, inexperienced; they have not yet learned to hate like adults. The name Montague or Capulet is not in itself enough to provoke them to hatred. As Juliet says, "What's in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet" (2.2.47-48).

The love Romeo and Juliet share, along with matrimony uniting them, could bring the two families together. Unfortunately, the lovers know, their parents would never permit them to marry. Mr. and Mrs. Capulet and Mr. and Mrs. Montague are too steeped in hatred, and quite comfortable to continue hating, to allow so outrageous an event as the wedding of a Capulet and Montague. Moreover, in their game of one-upmanship with the Montagues—and their attempt to aggrandize their social standing—the Capulets plan to match Juliet with an esteemed young nobleman, Paris, a kinsman of the Prince of Verona himself. So Romeo and Juliet marry in secret. Of course, there is no chance for them in the long run; the prologue says so at the outset. All they have is a moment of happiness.

Nevertheless, with his violent opening—and the questions it raises—Shakespeare skillfully draws us into the plot. In the end, it is not the cause of the feud that matters, but how it ends, tragically. The suicides of Romeo and Juliet, it seems, are the only events that can jolt the feuding families to their senses. The feud ends. So do the lives of the young lovers.

Parents Arrange Marriages

Arranged marriages enabled families to elevate or maintain social status, acquire wealth and property, or gain a political advantage. Love was of little or no concern at the betrothal; there would be time for feelings to develop after the couple recited vows.

In Romeo and Juliet, Lady Capulet—excited that Paris, a young man of wealth and status, expresses an interest in Juliet—asks her daughter, “What say you? Can you love the gentleman?” (1.3.86). The use of can rather than do encapsulates the mother’s view that love is not an immediate concern. Then she tells Juliet that if she marries Paris, “So shall you share all that he doth possess" (100).

“All that he doth possess” is of course money and social standing, benefits that Lady Capulet would share in. But Juliet feels nothing for Paris. As the nurse points out to Romeo, “She, good soul, had as lief see a toad, a very toad, as see him” (2.4.104).

Nevertheless, the Capulets arrange for a marriage between Juliet and Paris after the latter visits their home on a Monday. Unaware that Juliet has married Romeo in secret, old Capulet tells his wife to inform Juliet that she must marry Paris three days hence. Such short notice may have been unusual, but early marriage was not. After all, well-to-do teenage girls would not be pursuing careers as lawyers, physicians, writers, painters, musicians, or bookkeepers. They had a common destiny, ordained by custom: to marry into rank, reputation, and riches. When they reached childbearing age, they became marketable commodities. Lady Capulet tells her daughter to

Think of marriage now; younger than you,
Here in Verona, ladies of esteem,
Are made already mothers. (1.3.76-78)

Juliet, of course, has not yet turned fourteen. Thus, when Lady Capulet says “younger than you” have become mothers, she is referring to pubescent girls. Lady Capulet herself, who is not yet thirty, was about Juliet’s age when she married. Her husband is older than she—many years older, according to the implication of words spoken by Lady Capulet. When he calls out for a sword in the Act 1 brawl scene, Lady Capulet sarcastically remarks that he should ask for a crutch, not a sword. Apparently, it was not for youthful good looks that she married Capulet but for social position and money.

The Suicides: Were the Lovers Insane?

In deep despair, Romeo and Juliet committed suicide. Had they lapsed into insanity?

First, consider that they were Roman Catholics. This religion taught—and still teaches—that taking one's own life is a grave sin, punishable by eternal damnation. However, if a person lacks full control of his mental faculties—if a person's decision to kill himself lacks the full consent of his will— he would remain eligible for heaven. If Romeo and Juliet were in full control of their mental faculties, surely they would not have chosen to damn themselves to everlasting agony, an agony far greater than that which they were enduring on earth.

Second, consider that suicide is a selfish act when a rational person commits it. The person thinks primarily of ending his own pain but willingly ignores the pain that he will cause his family and friends. But Romeo and Juliet seemed to be genuinely loving persons. Clearly, they were not fully aware of the impact their deaths would have on others; they were not thinking rationally.

Third, consider the pressure they were under. The Duke of Verona had banished Romeo after he killed Tybalt. Lady Capulet, meanwhile, announced that Juliet was to marry Paris. Immature as they were, Romeo and Juliet lacked the wisdom and experience to cope with their predicament. They responded only to the pressure of the moment. After their first night together, they could have decided to reveal their marriage to the public with Friar Lawrence standing by to confirm it and to testify to their love for each other. This action might have touched the hearts of the feuding families. But even if the Capulets or Montagues sought to annul the marriage, Paris might well have rejected Juliet as “damaged goods.” But Romeo and Juliet saw only their present quandary and failed to look beyond it. They believed they were doomed to live apart and could not bear the pain of separation. Under this pressure, they chose to end their lives.

Were they insane? Probably not. But their control of their mental powers was clearly diminished.

Johnson's Appraisal of the Play

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)—a poet, essayist, lexicographer, and one of England's greatest literary critics—presented the following commentary on Romeo and Juliet in his "Preface to Shakespeare" (1765):

      This play is one of the most pleasing of our author's performances. The scenes are busy and various, the incidents numerous and important, the catastrophe irresistibly affecting, and the process of the action carried on with such probability, at least with such congruity to popular opinions, as tragedy requires.
Here is one of the few attempts of Shakespeare to exhibit the conversation of gentlemen, to represent the airy sprightliness of juvenile elegance. Mr. Dryden mentions a tradition, which might easily reach his time, of a declaration made by Shakespeare, that "he was obliged to kill Mercutio in the third act, lest he should have been killed by him." Yet he thinks him "no such formidable person, but that he might have lived through the play, and died in his bed," without danger to the poet. Dryden well knew, had he been in quest of truth, that, in a pointed sentence, more regard is commonly had to the words than the thought, and that it is very seldom to be rigorously understood. Mercutio's wit, gaiety and courage, will always procure him friends that wish him a longer life; but his death is not precipitated, he has lived out the time allotted him in the construction of the play; nor do I doubt the ability of Shakespeare to have continued his existence, though some of his sallies are, perhaps, out of the reach of Dryden; whose genius was not very fertile of merriment, nor ductile to humour, but acute, argumentative, comprehensive and sublime.
      The nurse is one of the characters in which the author delighted; he has, with great subtilty of distinction, drawn her at once loquacious and secret, obsequious and insolent, trusty and dishonest.
      His comick [comic] scenes are happily wrought, but his pathetick [pathetic] strains are always polluted with some unexpected depravations. His persons, however distressed, have a conceit left them in their misery, a miserable conceit.

Notable Quotations From the Play

My child is yet a stranger in the world;
She hath not seen the change of fourteen years,
Let two more summers wither in their pride,
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride. (1.2.10-13)
[Speaker: Juliet's father. Meaning: My daughter is not yet fourteen. She won't be ready for marriage until she is about sixteen.]

One fire burns out another's burning,
One pain is lessen'd by another's anguish. (1.2.42-43)
[Speaker: Benvolio. Meaning: one person's suffering makes another's suffering more bearable.]

It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! (1.5.42-44)
[Speaker: Romeo. Meaning: Juliet's beauty is like a bright star against a dark sky. Often in the play, Shakespeare uses figures of speech involving light and darkness. In the first line of this quotation is a metaphor and, in the second line, a simile (a comparison of unlike things that uses like, as, or than.]

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she. (2.2.4-8)
[Speaker: Romeo. Meaning: Romeo compares Juliet with the dawning sun in a metaphor. So striking is her loveliness that the moon becomes sick with jealousy (another metaphor).]

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. (2.2.7-40)
[Speaker: Juliet. Meaning: Juliet, unaware that Romeo is below (in the orchard), addresses him as if he were next to her. She wonders why (wherefore means why) he happens to be who he is—a young man with a name her family despises. She then muses that he should deny who he is. If he won't, she will then deny who she is—that is, she will "no longer be a Capulet."]
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet. (2.2.47-48)
[Speaker: Juliet. Meaning: What counts, Juliet observes, is what a person is, not who a person is. In modern terms, she is saying it does not matter whether a person is rich or poor, black or white, Catholic or Jew, American or Chinese. What matters is what he thinks and what he feels. A rose would still smell sweet if it were called a turnip or a dandelion.]

This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet. (2.2.129-130)
[Speaker: Juliet. Meaning: Juliet tells Romeo that their love, now just a bud, may become a beautiful flower by the next time they meet.]

Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow. (2.2.201-202)
[Speaker: Juliet. Meaning: Juliet says goodbye to Romeo using a figure of speech (sweet sorrow) called oxymoron. An oxymoron juxtaposes opposites. Wise fool, little giant, and painful pleasure are other examples of oxymorons.]

Care keeps his watch in every old man’s eye,     
And where care lodges, sleep will never lie. (2.3.39-40)
[Speaker: Friar Laurence. Meaning: worries keep an old man awake.

They stumble that run fast. (2.3.100)
[Speaker: Friar Laurence. Meaning: haste makes waste.]

A plague o' both your houses!
They have made worms' meat of me. (3.1.70-71)
[Speaker: Mercutio. Meaning: Mortally wounded by Tybalt, Romeo's friend Mercutio curses the Houses of Montague and Capulet. Worms' meat means that Mercutio knows he is about to die and that worms will feed on his flesh after he is buried.]

Night’s candles [stars] are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops. (3.5.11-12)
[Speaker: Romeo. Meaning: The night stars have disappeared. The morning sun is rising over the mountain tops.]

Beauty’s ensign [emblem; sign] yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death’s pale flag is not advanced there. (5.3.97-99)
[Speaker: Romeo. Meaning: While Juliet lies unconscious, Romeo thinks she is dead. However, he notices that her lips and cheeks are still red.]

How Shakespeare Prepared Manuscripts

Writing Tool: Quill Dipped in Ink

A quill was the hollow, rigid shaft of a bird’s feather. The word “pen” is derived from the Latin name for “feather”—“penna.” Shakespeare and other writers of his day used a variety of quills that they dipped in an ink container (inkwell) on a stand (standish) that held all the writing materials. If a writer’s pocket lacked jingle, he invested in a goose quill. If he could afford something better, he invested in a swan quill. Writers or artists who needed quills to produce fine lines purchased crow quills. Quills from ducks, eagles, turkeys, hawks and owls also served as “word processors,” producing plays, poems, and sometimes revolution.

Quills were the writing instruments of choice between AD 500 and AD 1850. (In the ancient world, writers used a variety of other instruments to write history, literature, announcements, bureaucratic records, and so on. These instruments included shaped twigs or branches that impressed words into clay, mallet-driven chisels that etched words in stone, brushes that wrote on pottery and other smooth surfaces —such as plaster and animal skins—sharpened bone or metal that inscribed words on wax surfaces, and sharpened reed stems dipped in ink that wrote on papyrus, an Egyptian water plant that was dried and pressed to make thin sheets suitable for receiving impressions. The introduction of the quill in the 500s—an event recorded by St. Isidore, a Spanish theologian—greatly eased the task of writers, much as personal computers did when they replaced typewriters in the last half of the twentieth century.)

Lighting: Daylight, Candlelight, Oil Lamps

Shakespeare probably tried to do most of his writing during the day, perhaps near a window, because writing at night required lit candles or an oil lamp. Candles were expensive. A writer could easily spend a day's earnings or more on candlelight illuminating the first draft of a poem or a soliloquy in a play. The alternative—oil lamps—gave off smoke and unpleasant odors. And they, too, required a pretty penny to buy and fuel, and maintain.

However, if Shakespeare attempted to confine all of his writing to mornings and afternoons, he probably failed. After all, as a playwright and an actor, he had to appear for the daytime rehearsals and performances of his works. Like people today, he had a "nine-to-five job" that probably forced him to moonlight. Also, passages in his plays suggest that he could have been something of an insomniac addicted to "burning the candle at both ends." In his book Shakespeare: the Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2005), Peter Ackroyd speculates that as a result of his various employments in the theatre, [Shakespeare] was obliged to write at night; there are various references in the plays to "oil-dried lamps," to candles, and to "the smoakie light" that is "fed with stinking Tallow" (Page 273).

Word Choice and Spelling

No official English dictionaries existed in Shakespeare's time. Therefore, he was free to use spellings and meanings that did not agree with accepted spellings and meanings. He could also choose from among words imported from Italy, France, and other countries by seafaring traders, soldiers, tourists, and adventurers.

When words did not exist to express his thoughts, Shakespeare made up his own—hundreds of them. Many of his neologisms are now in common use around the world. Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless, authors of Coined by Shakespeare (Merriam-Webster, 1998), list numerous words originated by Shakespeare, including bedroom, eyeball, generous, investment, madcap, obscene, radiance, torture, unreal, and varied.

Hundreds of words used by Shakespeare have changed meanings or connotations over time. For example, "Fellow, which has friendly overtones for us, was insulting in Shakespeare's day. Phrases that were metaphors to him have often lost their coloring with us: Since we seldom play the game of bowls, we overlook the concrete implications of 'There's the rub' (an impediment on the green)."—Levin, Harry. "General Introduction." The Riverside Shakespeare. G. Blakemore Evans, textual ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, page 9.)

Sources and Settings

To write his plays, Shakespeare borrowed from history, Greek and Roman mythology, and literary works, then used his genius to enliven histories and myths and improve on plots, reworking them and sometimes adding new characters.

Because settings on an Elizabethan stage were spare, Shakespeare had to write descriptions of them into his dialogue. This handicap proved to be a boon, for it motivated Shakespeare to write some of his best descriptions.

Whenever place or time mattered [in a Shakespeare play], some references to them could be introduced into the dialogue, and if special atmospheric or dramatic effects were needed, they could be created by the poet's pen. Hence, it is to the Elizabethan stage that we are indebted in great measure for the exquisite descriptive poetry of Shakespeare. Such conditions, moreover, encouraged a greater imaginative cooperation on the part of the audience in the production of a play, and this active participation was further increased by the informality of the platform stage. With such intimacy, soliloquies, asides, and long set speeches are natural and not absurd as they are in modern theatre.—Watt, Homer A., and Karl J. Holzknecht. Outlines of Shakespeare's Plays. New York: Barnes, 1947 (page 8).

Drafts of Plays and Censorship

Shakespeare's manuscripts had to be submitted for approval. After writing out a manuscript, Shakespeare (or a professional scribe) made a copy of it in which obvious errors were corrected. An acting company could alter a playwright's manuscript with or without his approval. It is possible that editors improved some of Shakespeare's manuscripts. It is also possible that they weakened manuscripts. The original manuscript was called the "foul papers" because of the blots and crossouts on it. The new version was called a "fair copy." It was submitted to the Master of Revels, a government censor who examined it for material offensive to the crown. If approved, the fair copy became known as a "prompt copy," which the actors used to memorize their lines. The acting company bought the prompt copy, gaining sole possession of it, after paying the writer. The company then wrote in the stage directions (exit, enter, etc.). John Russell Brown, author of Shakespeare and His Theatre (New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1982, page 31) discusses the circumstances under which the censor forbade the staging of one of Shakespeare's plays:

At a time of unrest, when the Earl of Essex was challenging the Queen's [Elizabeth's] authority and armed bands terrorized the streets of London, the Chamberlain's Men [Shakespeare's company] were forbidden to perform Richard II, a play already licensed and performed, because it contained a scene in which a king is compelled to renounce his crown; in 1601, the queen's counsellors believed that this might encourage her enemies and spark off a revolution. The theatre was taken very seriously by the authorities and was allowed to deal with political issues only if they did not refer too obviously to current affairs or seditious ideas, but were set, safely, in an earlier century or, better still, in ancient Rome or foreign countries.

No original copy, or foul papers, of a Shakespeare play has survived to the present day except for a few pages of Sir Thomas More, partly written by Shakespeare. Fredson Bowers explains why the manuscripts were lost:

No Shakespeare manuscript is in existence. This is not surprising: they were not collectors' items. Printers would have thrown them away after setting type from them; almost twenty years passed in the Commonwealth with no public performances of plays, and the manuscripts of the disbanded theatrical companies were completely dispersed; the Great Fire of London must have destroyed some. Indeed, only a relative handful of the hundreds and hundreds of Elizabethan plays have come down to us in manuscript form, and it is our bad luck that so few of these are by major dramatists. None is Shakespeare's if we except the good possibility that one scene in the manuscript of the unacted Sir Thomas More is in his hand.—Bowers, Fredson. ''What Shakespeare Wrote.'' Approaches to Shakespeare, by Norma Rabkin. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964 (page 266).

Writing Format: Verse, Prose, and Poetry

Shakespeare wrote his plays partly in verse and partly in prose, freely alternating between the two in the same acts and scenes. It is not unusual, in fact, for one character to address a second character in verse while the second character responds in prose. Sometimes, the same character speaks in verse in one moment and in prose in another.

Verse is a collection of lines that follow a regular, rhythmic pattern. In Shakespeare, this pattern is usually iambic pentameter, a rhythm scheme in which each line has five pairs of syllables. Each pair consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Verse resembles poetry. Prose, on the other hand, is the everyday language of conversation, letters, lectures, sermons, newspaper articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia articles. Prose has no rhyme or metric scheme.

Why did Shakespeare mix verse (including poetry) and prose in his plays? That is a question that inevitably occupies anyone studying Shakespeare’s writing techniques. Before considering that question, the Shakespeare analyst first needs to learn how to identify the verse and prose passages in a play. That task is easy. Here’s why:

In most modern editions of the plays, each line in multi-line verse passages begins with a capital letter, and each line in multi-line prose passages begins with a small letter except the first line or a line beginning with the opening word of a sentence. In addition, verse passages have a shortened right margin, but prose passages have a full right margin. Following are examples of these visual cues in verse and prose passages from Romeo and Juliet:

Verse Passage Spoken by Friar Laurence

The grey-ey’d morn smiles on the frowning night,   
Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light,   
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels           
From forth day’s path and Titan’s fiery wheels. (2.3.4-7).

Prose Passage Spoken by a Capulet Servant

Find them out whose names are written here! It is written that the shoemaker should meddle with his yard, and the tailor with his last, the fisher with his pencil, and the painter with his nets; but I am sent to find those persons, whose names are here writ, and can never find what names the writing person hath here writ. I must to the learned. In good time. (1.2.40)

Now, then, what about single lines—those spoken in conversation as questions or replies? They are in prose if one line has no paired rhyming line or is too abrupt to contain a rhythmic or rhyming pattern. The following exchange between Romeo and Benvolio contains such short lines.

BENVOLIO:  Good morrow, cousin.     
ROMEO:  Is the day so young?     
BENVOLIO:  But new struck nine.   
ROMEO:  Ay me! sad hours seem long.     
Was that my father that went hence so fast?     
BENVOLIO:  It was. What sadness lengthens Romeo’s hours?     
ROMEO:  Not having that, which having, makes them short.
BENVOLIO:  In love?
ROMEO:  Out—
BENVOLIO:  Of love?
ROMEO:  Out of her favour, where I am in love. (1.1.146-156)

But what of the multi-line passages? Why are some in verse and others in prose? The answer some Shakespeare commentators provide—an answer that is simplistic and not wholly accurate—is that Shakespeare reserved verse for noble, highborn characters and prose for common, lowborn characters. It is true that royalty and nobility often speak in verse and that peasants and commoners often speak in prose. But it is also true that noble characters sometimes speak in prose and that lowborn characters, like the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, often speak in verse. Why, then, does Shakespeare alternate between verse and prose?

Shakespeare used verse to do the following:

(1) Express deep emotion requiring elevated language. Because nobles and commoners were both capable of experiencing profound emotion, both expressed their emotions in verse from time to time.

(2) Make wise, penetrating, reflective observations and sometimes powerfully emotive pleas. Such a plea is the following one by Romeo.

She speaks:     
O! speak again, bright angel; for thou art     
As glorious to this night, being o’er my head,     
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white-upturned wond’ring eyes     
Of mortals, that fall back to gaze on him     
When he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds,     
And sails upon the bosom of the air. (2.2.29-36)

(3) Present a poem—or poetic language—within a play. For example, the prologue preceding Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet is a type of poem called a sonnet. A sonnet has fourteen lines with a rhyme scheme of ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. Here is the prologue, spoken by the chorus, with boldfaced, underlined, capitalized, and italicized letters illustrating the rhyme scheme.

A   Two households, both alike in dignity,
B     In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
A   From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,            
B     Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
C   From forth the fatal loins of these two FOES
D     A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
C   Whose misadventur’d piteous OVERTHROWS             
D     Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
E   The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
F     And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
E   Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
F     Is now the two hours’ traffick of our stage;
G   The which if you with patient ears ATTEND,
G   What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to MEND.

An example of poetic language is Friar Laurence's greeting of Romeo in the third scene of Act 2. The greeting consists of rhyming couplets (two successive lines with end rhyme). The friar says, in part:

Young son, it argues a distemper’d head
So soon to bid good morrow to thy bed:   
Care keeps his watch in every old man’s eye,   
And where care lodges, sleep will never lie;           
But where unbruised youth with unstuff’d BRAIN  
Doth couch his limbs, there golden sleep doth REIGN:   
Therefore thy earliness doth me assure   
Thou art up-rous’d by some distemperature;   
Or if not so, then here I hit it right,          
Our Romeo hath not been in bed to-night. (37-46)

(4) Inject irony. When the lowborn speak verse or poetry rather than prose (as they so often do), Shakespeare may be saying that they are at least equal to—or even better than—the highborn, at least in human qualities. Juliet's nurse, who is a kind of surrogate mother to the young girl, speaks often in verse, as in the following passage:

Hie you hence to Friar Laurence’ cell,   
There stays a husband to make you a wife:   
Now comes the wanton blood up in your cheeks,   
They’ll be in scarlet straight at any news.          
Hie you to church; I must another way,   
To fetch a ladder, by the which your love   
Must climb a bird’s nest soon when it is dark;   
I am the drudge and toil in your delight,   
But you shall bear the burden soon at night.           
Go; I’ll to dinner: hie you to the cell. (2.5.62-71)

(5) Suggest order, exactitude, and intelligence. A character who speaks in precise rhythms and patterns is a character with a tidy brain who perceives reality as it is and presents his observations with measured words. Benvolio does so in the following passage in which he advises Romeo to compare Rosaline, with whom Romeo is infatuated early in the play, with the young ladies he sees at the Capulet party. Benvolio realizes, correctly, that Romeo needs to measure one lady against another before choosing one that fulfills all his expectations. Note that end rhyme occurs in an AA, BB, CC pattern.

You saw her [Rosaline] fair, none else being by,   
Herself pois’d with herself in either eye;   
But in that crystal scales let there be weigh’d   
Your lady’s love against some other maid           
That I will show you shining at this feast,   
And she shall scant show well that now shows best. (1.2.82-87)

Shakespeare used prose to do the following:

(1) Express ordinary, undistinguished observations coming from the surface of the mind rather than its active, ruminating interior.

(2) Make quick, one-line replies such as “Ay, my lord” that are the stuff of day-to-day conversations.

(3) Present auditory relief for audiences (or visual relief for readers) from the intellectual and connotative density of some verse passages.

(4) Suggest madness, senility, or a mind that is mercurial and quick to express its fast-flowing thoughts, as is Mercutio's in the following exchange between him and Benvolio:

BENVOLIO: Here comes Romeo, here comes Romeo.           
MERCUTIO: Without his roe, like a dried herring. O flesh, flesh, how art thou fishified! Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in: Laura to his lady was but a kitchen-wench; marry, she had a better love to be-rime her; Dido a dowdy; Cleopatra a gipsy; Helen and Hero hildings and harlots; Thisbe, a grey eye or so, but not to the purpose. Signior Romeo, bon jour! there’s a French salutation to your French slop. You gave us the counterfeit fairly last night. (2.4.20-21)
[marry: Archaic sentence introduction equivalent to well, as in “Well, he’s a fine fellow”; interjection expressing surprise, as in “No kidding!” or “Good grief!”]
[hildings: Low, base, contemptible persons.]

In Shakespeare's King Lear, Lear speaks almost exclusively in verse in the first half of the play. Then suddenly, he lurches back and forth between verse and prose, perhaps to suggest the frenzied state of his aging mind. In Hamlet, the title character sometimes shifts to prose in front of observers, perhaps in hopes of presenting his pretended madness as real.

(5) Depict the rambling, desultory path of conversation from a tongue loosened by alcohol.

(6) Poke fun at characters who lack the wit to versify their lines.

(7) Demonstrate that prose can have merits as a literary medium. In Shakespeare’s day, verse (and its elegant cousin, poetry) was the sine qua non of successful writing. As an innovator, Shakespeare may have wanted to tout the merits of prose. Thus, on occasion, he infused his plays with prose passages so graceful and thought-provoking that they equaled, and sometimes even surpassed, the majesty of verse or poetry passages. Such a prose passage is the following, spoken in Hamlet by the title character:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so. (2.2.250)

Blank Verse and Iambic Pentameter

Under Writing Format: Verse, Prose, and Poetry, you read that Shakespeare wrote his plays in verse, prose, and poetry and that he used a rhythm format called iambic pentameter. 
When his verse lines in iambic pentameter do not rhyme, they are said to be in blank verse.
To understand iambic pentameter, you first need to understand the term iamb. An iamb is a unit of rhythm consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Consider the words annoy, fulfill, pretend, regard, and serene. They are all iambs because the first syllable of each word is unstressed (or unaccented) and the second syllable is stressed (or accented): an NOY, ful FILL, pre TEND, re GARD, and ser ENE. Iambs can also consist of one word with a single unstressed (unaccented) syllable followed by another word with a single stressed (accented) syllable (example: the KING). In addition, they may consist of a final unstressed syllable of one word followed by an initial stressed syllable of the next word. The following lines from Romeo and Juliet demonstrate the use of iambs. The stressed words or syllables are boldfaced:

She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes     
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone     
On the fore-finger of an alderman,     
Drawn with a team of little atomies. (1.4.61-64)

When a line has five iambs, it is in iambic pentameter. Each line in the passage above has five iambs. For example, the iambs in the first line are (1) Your face, (2) my thane, (3) is as, (4) a book, (5) where men.

The prefix pent- (in pentameter) means five. The suffix -meter refers to the recurrence of a rhythmic unit (also called a foot). Thus, because the above lines contain iambs, they are iambic. Because they contain five iambs (five feet) they are said to be in iambic pentameter. Finally, because the words at the end of each line do not rhyme, the lines are said to be in unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse.

Blank verse was modeled after ancient Greek and Latin verse. It was first used in 1514 in Renaissance Italy by Francesco Maria Molza. In 1539, Italian Giovanni Rucellai was the first poet to label the unrhymed iambic pentameter in his poetry as blank verse (versi sciolti in Italian). Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, first used blank verse in English in his translation of Vergil's epic Latin poem The Aeneid. The first English drama in blank verse was Gorboduc, staged in 1561, by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton. It was about an early British king. Later in the same century, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare turned blank verse into high art when they used it in their plays. Marlowe used the verse form in Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine, and Edward II. Shakespeare used it in all of his plays. In Germany, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) popularized blank verse in his long poem Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise), published in 1779.