Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

first staged circa 1595, London

February 2004

Love's intensity redoubled

It lies not in our power to love, or hate,
For will in us is over-ruled by fate. ...

The reason no man knows; let it suffice,
What we behold is censured by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?

Christopher Marlowe
Hero and Leander, 1.167-168, 1.173-176
The Works of Christopher Marlowe

William Shakespeare wrought so well his version of love at first sight that Romeo and Juliet is the archetype. The stageplay's title and titular characters remain household words, four centuries later, for intense young lovers and for tragically blocked love.

So at least the basics of the plot are widely known. Yet even knowing how the Trojan War turns out does not stop ongoing reading of the Iliad, a tale so old that Romeo and Juliet is youthful beside. I'd like to talk a little about marriage and about language in the play, but first let's glance at that point of youthfulness.

DHF Romeo and Juliet rehearsal

Very young love

Romeo is a very young man, with only one conventional infatuation (with Rosaline) so far; Juliet is not quite fourteen. The youthfulness of the protagonists goes far to explain how they are swept away by their first deep wave of true love. Stephen Greenblatt's fine introduction to the play in The Norton Shakespeare lists five antecedent stories about Romeo and Juliet: Italian, French, and English, over the preceding 120 years. He points out that Shakespeare lowered the age of Juliet, given in his sources as eighteen or sixteen, down to the last weeks of thirteen for his heroine.

Franco Zeffirelli's film Romeo and Juliet (1968) has the great merit of casting lead actors aged seventeen and fifteen, helping us to visualize their teenage intensity neither moderated by experience, nor governed by wisdom.

Montague and Capulet

Near the beginning of the play Romeo and friend Benvolio by chance read Capulet's invitation-list to the masked ball at which Romeo will meet (or truly notice) Juliet of the Capulet family for the first time. The list names Veronese gentry, and Capulet friends and family including:

Mine uncle Capulet, his wife and daughters,
My fair niece Rosaline and Livia, ...

Romeo and Juliet, 1.2.68-69

The list is Capulet's own, the head-of-family who is Juliet's father. I read this as Rosaline being a Capulet relation also. If so, it may be relevant to Rosaline's spurning (before the play opens) the attentions of Romeo, scion of their arch-rivals the Montague family. It also suggests that poor Romeo, right after being drawn by the candle-flame of one socially-impossible girl, Rosaline — is furnace-blasted by Juliet, socially-impossible for the same reason of inter-family hostility. Rosaline does not appear on-stage, but at Benvolio's urging Romeo goes masked to that party to see her "With all the admired beauties of Verona", and perhaps transfer his affections to someone more responsive. It works: Romeo sees Juliet.

There are great pressures against their happiness. Their families' deadly feud; love's confusing intensity; parental obtuseness; exile out of Verona for Romeo; forced marriage to a parental favorite impending for Juliet; their own impetuosity — I think shown as less reasonable in Romeo than in Juliet.

Marriage to whom?

Marriage is of course the goal here, the point of contention being: to whom? This bundles other questions: who chooses? and on what basis?

Marry for love and attraction, but never for money or position? The Elizabethan era had different emphases:

To understand the moral premises upon which such a society is based, it is necessary to rid ourselves of three modern Western culture-based preconceptions.

The first is that there is a clear dichotomy between marriage for interest, meaning money, status or power, and marriage for affect, meaning love, friendship or sexual attraction; and that the first is morally reprehensible. In practice in the sixteenth century, no such distinction existed; and if it did, affect was of secondary importance to interest, while romantic love and lust were strongly condemned as ephemeral and irrational grounds for marriage.

The second modern preconception is that sexual intercourse unaccompanied by an emotional relationship is immoral, and that marriage for interest is therefore a form of prostitution.

The third is that personal autonomy, the pursuit by the individual of his or her own happiness, is paramount, a claim justified by the theory that it in fact contributes to the well-being of the group.

To an Elizabethan audience the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, like that of Othello, lay not so much in their ill-starred romance as in the way they brought destruction upon themselves by violating the norms of the society in which they lived, which in the former case meant strict filial obedience and loyalty to the traditional friendships and enmities of the lineage. An Elizabethan courtier would be familiar enough with the bewitching passion of love to feel some sympathy with the young couple, but he would see clearly enough where duty lay.

Lawrence Stone
The Family, Sex and Marriage
in England 1500-1800
   [italics added]

Of course, both currents flow simultaneously to some depth in societies as in individuals, then as now. For a contrasting and real-life romance of a fifteen-year-old girl, eighty years after 1595, see Sarah Churchill and The Rules for Dating.

Lovers of words

Wordplay of all sorts flirts and kisses all through Romeo and Juliet. Much of the comic, and some of the serious, dialogue is absolutely thrust full of licentious puns and allusions; I misdoubt that even the editors of The Norton Shakespeare have annotated the half of them. But William Shakespeare's amazing power in English is serious and hard-working even in fun. Stephen Greenblatt credits it thusly:

But it is principally by means of the incandescent brilliance of its language that Romeo and Juliet has earned its place as one of the greatest love stories in world literature. Shakespeare makes linguistic power actually figure thematically in the play by insisting on the crucial importance of naming and, more generally, by repeatedly calling attention to the force of verbal actions. ...

Romeo and Juliet is saturated with language games: paradoxes, oxymorons, double entendres, rhyming tricks, verbal echoings, multiple puns. ...

At some moments in Romeo and Juliet, ... wordplay reveals the arbitrariness of language; at other moments, it seems to reveal a hidden reality, even a sacred truth. These contradictory revelations are explored in the famous balcony scene in Act 2. Mercutio's mockery gives way ... to incantatory language so intense as to create a new heaven and a new earth. A bare, day-lit stage (as it would have been in the Elizabethan playhouse) becomes a dark garden above which Juliet appears like the sun. Visibility is canceled and then restored, by means of metaphor ...

Stephen Greenblatt
Introduction to Romeo and Juliet
The Norton Shakespeare
Love and words:
the world of the marriage of hearts

Northrop Frye points up the tremendous contrast, at the big Capulet party, between Capulet's cornily-joking public welcome to his guests, and love's first encounter:

Romeo sees Juliet, makes his way to her after narrowly escaping death from Tybalt, and the two of them enter into a dialogue that's an exquisitely turned extended (eighteen-line) sonnet. That's not "realistic," of course: in whatever real life may be, lovers don't start cooing in sonnet form.

What has happened belongs to reality, not to realism; or rather, the God of Love ... has swooped down on two perhaps rather commonplace adolescents and blasted them into another dimension of reality altogether. So Capulet's speech and the Romeo-Juliet sonnet, two verbal experiences as different as though they were on different planets, are actually going on in the same room and being acted on the same stage.

Northrop Frye
Northrop Frye on Shakespeare

So we have in Romeo and Juliet not a marriage manual in blank verse, not a reformist tract about wayward youth, not gritty Socialist Realism, and not even Elizabethan Realism. What we do have is love and words together, both at their keenest pitch; and through this extra-real, extraterritorial realism, we share something of love and words that despite all create the world of the marriage of hearts. We have The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.


© 2004 Robert Wilfred Franson

Scene and line numbering as in
The Norton Shakespeare

Note: The rainbow effect on the outdoor high-school stage
(click for the larger version to see it clearly)
was not added to my photograph afterwards. — RWF

R. W. Franson's review of
Will in the World
How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare
by Stephen Greenblatt

William Shakespeare
at Troynovant

Poetry at Troynovant
poetry, poets, & poetic inspiration

Romance at Troynovant
dating, romantic love, marriage


Troynovant, or Renewing Troy:    New | Contents
  recurrent inspiration    200 Recent Updates
emergent layers of
untimely Reviews
& prismatic Essays


Books by Author:  A-B   C-F   G-L   M-R   S-Z
   Books by Title:  A-B   C-F   G-L   M-R   S-Z
Pamphlets by Title   Stories by Author   Stories by Title

Strata | Regions | Personae

Share this item —

Bookmark & Share

© 2001-2023 Franson Publications