Romeo and Juliet is a play written by William Shakespeare early in his career as a playwright. It is believed to have been written at some time between 1591 and 1595. It was one of the most popular of Shakespeare's plays during his lifetime and, along with Hamlet, it remains one of the most frequently performed of his plays today.
The two main characters come from two families which have long been feuding with each other, Romeo from the Montague family and Juliet from the Capulet family. The hatred between the two families means that Romeo and Juliet are forced to keep their love for each other secret, with ultimately tragic consequences.
Romeo and Juliet is based on a lost novella by the Italian author Matteo Bandello which was adapted into English in 1562 as a poem by Arthur Brooke and in 1582 as a short story by William Painter. However, stories similar to Romeo and Juliet existed for centuries before Shakespeare's time, including the legend of Pyramus and Thisbe, which is parodied in Shakespeare's own A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Two different versions of Romeo and Juliet were published in book form during Shakespeare's lifetime, the First Quarto (Q1) in 1597 and the Second Quarto (Q2) in 1599. Q1 is apparently a pirated copy based on an actor's faulty memory of the play, whereas Q2 appears to be based on Shakespeare's own rough draft. Q2 formed the basis of the version that appeared in the First Folio, the first collection of the complete works of Shakespeare, published in 1623. Most modern editions are based on a combination of Q1 and Q2. Since the 1723 edition of Alexander Pope, it has been standard practice to include stage directions from Q1 which are missing in Q2.
Romeo and Juliet are amongst the most famous fictional lovers of all time. The story of Shakespeare's play has been adapted numerous times in other media, including ballets, operas stage musicals and movies.
The action takes place in the Italian city of Verona. At the start of the play, the Montague and the Capulet families have already been feuding with each other for many years and fights between members of the two families or their servants are common.
At the beginning of Act I, two servants from the Capulet household deliberately pick a fight with two servants from the Montague household. Benvolio, the nephew of Lord Montague and a close friend of Romeo, tries to stop them but Tybalt, the nephew of Lord Capulet, challenges Benvolio to fight him. A general brawl breaks out. Lords Capulet and Montague arrive and, against their wives' wishes, join in the fight. Prince Escalus, the chief figure of authority in Verona, arrives and demands that the fighting stop. The Prince adds that if any such fights break out in the future, those involved will be executed.
Benvolio is told by Lord Montague that his son Romeo has been sad recently but he does not know why. Romeo arrives and Benvolio speaks to him alone. He finds out that Romeo's sadness is because he is in love with a woman named Rosaline who does not return his affections. Benvolio tells him to search for love elsewhere and forget about Rosaline but Romeo says that is impossible.
At the house of the Capulets, Count Paris, a relative of Prince Escalus, is asking Lord Capulet for permission to marry his daughter Juliet. Although Capulet thinks that his daughter is probably too young to marry, he gives Paris permission to wed her if he can woo her successfully.
A great party is to be held at the Capulets' home that evening. Lady Capulet gives a servant named Peter a list of the people that she wants to attend and tells him to go out, find the people on the list and invite them. Unfortunately, Peter cannot read. He asks somebody on the street to read the list for him, that person happens to be Romeo. Seeing the name of Rosaline on the list, the idea of attending the party occurs to Romeo. Benvolio encourages the idea, thinking that Romeo will see other women at the party and forget about Rosaline.
Juliet and her Nurse, the woman who cared for Juliet since she was a baby, are told by Lady Capulet that Paris wishes to marry the young lady. Juliet agrees to consider marrying him, having little choice in the matter.
Romeo, masked and dressed as a Christian pilgrim, arrives at the Capulets' party with Benvolio and their friend Mercutio. They are greeted by Lord Capulet himself. Tybalt recognizes Romeo's voice and is prepared to kill him on the spot. Lord Capulet, however, stops him, not wanting bloodshed in his own house and saying that he has heard good things about Romeo.
Searching the crowd for Rosaline, Romeo sees Juliet instead and instantly falls in love with her. He talks to her in character as a pilgrim, pretending that she is a statue of a saint. The two have a brief flirtatious conversation and Juliet allows Romeo to kiss her. Their meeting is cut short when Juliet's mother calls her away.
The Nurse tells Romeo who Juliet is. Troubled that he has fallen in love with someone from his enemies' family, he leaves. Juliet asks the Nurse for the identity of the man who she has fallen in love with. She is equally disturbed to find out the truth.
Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio leave the Capulets' home but Romeo finds that he can go no further. He climbs over the wall into the Capulets' orchard. Believing that he is still foolishly pursuing Rosaline, Mercutio and Benvolio leave him.
Hidden in the shadows outside the Capulets' house, Romeo sees Juliet come to her window and them walk out onto her balcony. Thinking that she is alone, Juliet begins to talk about how much she loves Romeo, worrying that they will be kept apart because of the feud between their two families. Romeo lets Juliet know that he is there and they proclaim their love for each other. Juliet has to leave because her Nurse is calling for her but, before she leaves, the two agree to get married. Juliet is to send a messenger to Romeo who will report back to her about the wedding arrangements.
Romeo goes to see Friar Laurence, a monk and a herbalist who can make both medicines and poisons. Romeo tells the friar about his plans to marry Juliet. Friar Laurence is at first surprised that Romeo has suddenly given up his love for Rosaline. However, he agrees to perform the wedding ceremony, thinking that a marriage between Romeo and Juliet could put an end to the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets.
Benvolio and Mercutio find a note from Tybalt, challenging Romeo to a duel. They do not tell Romeo about it, thinking that in his lovesick condition he is in no state to fight.
Juliet sends her Nurse to find Romeo and she reports back to her about the wedding arrangements that Romeo has made.
The act ends with the two lovers being secretly married by Friar Laurence.
Benvolio and Mercutio are confronted on the street by Tybalt who demands to see Romeo. When he arrives, Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt because he is now related to him by marriage, although he feels that he cannot yet reveal that fact. Mercutio accepts Tybalt's challenge instead but loses the fight and receives a fatal wound. He curses both the Capulets and the Montagues before he dies.
Romeo cannot let the death of his friend go unavenged. He fights and kills Tybalt. He then becomes aware of the distress that he will have caused Juliet by killing her cousin and remembers Prince Escalus' decree that brawlers will now be executed. He flees the scene and takes refuge with Friar Laurence.
Benvolio explains to the Prince that Tybalt started the fight and killed Mercutio. The Prince agrees to give Romeo a lesser sentence, he is banished from Verona but will be executed if he ever returns.
Juliet's Nurse brings her the bad news. She forgives Romeo for killing her cousin, knowing that Tybalt would not have hesitated to kill Romeo, but is equally upset by Tybalt's death and Romeo's banishment, believing that she will not be able to go on living without her husband.
The Nurse decides to find Romeo and bring him to her young mistress. Friar Laurence allows Romeo to spend one night with Juliet but tells him to flee to Mantua in the morning. Romeo and Juliet spend one brief night together, Romeo leaving just before Lady Capulet enters her daughter's room.
In order to cheer her up after the death of Tybalt, Juliet's parents have decided that she should marry Paris as soon as possible. They are surprised and extremely angry when Juliet refuses to marry him. When Juliet's Nurse tells her to forget about the banished Romeo and marry Paris, she decides that Friar Laurence is the only one who can help her.
Friar Laurence agrees to prevent Juliet from becoming the wife of two men. He gives her a potion that will make her appear to be dead for forty-two hours. She is to drink it before she goes to bed and will wake up in the Capulet family crypt. Friar Laurence says that he will send word of the plan to Romeo, who will come and rescue her and take her away to safety in Mantua. Juliet agrees to the plan.
Returning home, Juliet tells her father that she is now happy to marry Paris. The wedding is moved forward to the following morning.
Juliet has some misgivings about taking the potion. She is first troubled by the idea that it might not work and she will have to marry Paris after all. She then considers that Friar Laurence might have given her a real poison, in order to cover up his guilt at having secretly married her to Romeo, although she quickly dismisses the idea.Finally, she thinks about what will happen if the potion does work, meaning that she will wake up in a crypt surrounded by corpses. Nevertheless, she drinks it.
The following morning, the Nurse, Lord and Lady Capulet, Paris and Friar Laurence see the apparently dead Juliet lying on her bed.
Friar Laurence has sent another monk, Friar John, to send a message to Romeo, explaining the truth of what has happened. Unfortunately, Friar John is prevented from getting to Mantua because of an outbreak of plague. Instead, Romeo's servant Balthasar tells him that Juliet is dead and lying in the Capulet family crypt. Romeo decides to return to Verona, enter the tomb where Juliet lies and kill himself by taking poison.
Having found out that Friar John failed to deliver the message, Friar Laurence decides that he will have to rescue Juliet himself and shelter her until Romeo can take her away.
Balthasar and Romeo enter the churchyard where the Capulet tomb is located. Romeo gives Balthasar a letter to give to his father, breaks open the tomb's door and tells Balthasar to leave. Paris, who is already in the churchyard, confronts Romeo. Although he does not want to fight him, Romeo eventually gives in, fights and kills Paris. Before he dies, Paris asks to be laid to rest next to Juliet. Romeo agrees to his request.
Romeo enters the tomb, takes the poison and kisses Juliet before he dies. Friar Laurence enters the tomb just before Juliet wakes up. Seeing the dead Romeo, he has no choice but to tell Juliet the truth about what happened. The friar hears some people coming and begs Juliet to leave. Juliet flatly refuses and Friar Laurence leaves on his own.
Juliet tries to drink from Romeo's poison bottle but finds it empty. She tries to kill herself by kissing Romeo's lips, thinking that some poison might still be on them. When that fails to work, she commits suicide by stabbing herself with Romeo's dagger.
Some officers arrive, quickly followed by Prince Escalus, the Capulets and Lord Montague. Friar Laurence explains everything that has happened. Lord Capulet and Lord Montague realize that their children are dead because of their feud and agree to put the fighting to an end.
In popular culture
The story of Romeo and Juliet is so popular that it has become a common metaphor for couples that face opposition from their families or communities. People who have never seen or read the play are often familiar with the outline of the story. The term "star-crossed lovers" comes from this play.
Many other stories are basically retelling this with updates to fit into other circumstances. One famous musical, West Side Story, is a version set in New York City with lovers from different immigrant groups and gangs. The ending is slightly different, but the way it makes those around them consider the ongoing violence is similar.
- Sound files of public domain audiobooks from LibriVox:
- Text of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet on Wikisource.
- Quotations from Romeo and Juliet on Wikiquote.
- Romeo and Juliet on the SparkNotes website.
- Romeo and Juliet Key Stage 3 and GCSE study guides from BBC Bitesize.
- Films based on Romeo and Juliet on Moviepedia.
- 1911 silent movie version of Romeo and Juliet,only the second reel of which survives, on YouTube.
- Video of the 1912 Italian silent film Romeo e Giulietta on Wikimedia Commons (intertitles in Dutch).