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The Ultimate ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Overview | Skills Understanding Shakespeare

In this article, we will go through the plot, a brief overview of every important character, key contextual points, and key themes.

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The Ultimate ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Overview

In this article, we’ll discuss;

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What happens in ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Here’s a quick refresher about everything that happened in Romeo and Juliet!

 

Summary

Romeo and Juliet is a tragic love story between two young teenagers from 2 feuding families.

Romeo Montague first meets Juliet Capulet when he sneaks into her family’s party. They immediately fall in love and secretly marry the next day (their families are enemies).

Soon after, Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, in a fight. This causes him to be exiled from their town.

In the meantime, Juliet’s family forces her to marry Count Paris – a wealthy and handsome noble. So, she pretends to kill herself by drinking poison in an attempt to meet Romeo again.

Romeo hears of her death and visits her tomb, slaying the mourning Paris in a duel soon after arriving. Romeo lays out his fellow suitor in Juliet’s tomb, fulfilling his final wish. However, when Romeo finds Juliet, he truly believes that she is dead and kills himself. Juliet wakes up to find Romeo dead. She also kills herself.

Their family finds the 2 dead bodies of the two lovers and agree to end their feud.

Pretty tragic, huh!

Now, let’s see what happens in each act in a little more detail:

 

Act 1:

The play opens with a chorus that introduces the Montagues and Capulets as enemies and foreshadows Romeo and Juliet’s death.

The next scene shows a physical fight between the 2 families. The Prince of Verona had to personally come down and stop the fight. Here, he gives them a warning: the next person who disturbs peace will ‘forfeit their life’.

Later on, we see some of the Montague boys disguising themselves to crash a Capulet party. Here, Romeo meets Juliet and they fall in love.

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Act 2:

Romeo sneaks around the Capulet house to talk to Juliet from her window. Here, they profess their love for each other and decides to get married.

The next day, Juliet’s nurse helps the two lovers arrange their secret marriage.

They all meet at Friar Lawrence’s cell for the small ceremony.

Friar Lawrence ties the union, “So smile the heavens upon this holy act”. Now, Romeo and Juliet are officially married… in secret.

 

Act 3:

Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, is out looking to fight Romeo. Romeo refuses to fight because he is now married to Tybalt’s cousin (he doesn’t explicitly reveal this to Tybalt though).

So, instead, Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend, takes Romeo’s place and fights Tybalt. Tybalt accidentally kills Mercutio which angers Romeo.

So, Romeo joins the fight and kills Tybalt!

Meanwhile, Juliet is waiting for Romeo to visit her. When she hears the news about the brawl, she realises that she needs to send Romeo a message.

At this point, the news about Romeo’s banishment from Verona has reached both of the lovers. Romeo is now hiding in Friar Lawrence’s cell. They both arrange a meeting with Juliet.

Later on, we see that Paris visits the Capulets to arrange a marriage with Juliet. The Capulets are unaware of her marriage with Romeo and agree that they will be married on Thursday. Juliet is angry and defies them.

 

Act 4:

Friar Lawrence helps Juliet fake her death to escape her marriage with Paris and reunite with Romeo.

Here, he gives her a sleeping potion that she will drink on the day of the wedding. Friar Lawrence also sends a messenger to update Romeo about their plans and to tell him to meet Juliet at the Capulet house.

The Capulets and Paris move the wedding day earlier.

So, Juliet is forced to take the potion a day early.

The Nurse finds her ‘dead’ body on the day of the wedding. The Capulets move her to the family tomb.

 

Act 5:

Meanwhile, the messenger is unable to leave Verona because of a disease outbreak. So, the news about Juliet’s plan never reaches Romeo.

Instead, Romeo receives the news that Juliet is dead from his servant. So, distraught, Romeo buys poison and makes his way to Juliet’s tomb.

Here, he stumbles into the mourning Paris. They fight and Romeo kills Paris. Romeo accedes to Paris’ dying wish and lays him on the floor of the tomb, next to Juliet’s body.

Romeo takes some time to talk to Juliet’s ‘dead’ body before he drinks the poison and kills himself.

Right after this, Juliet wakes up to find Romeo’s dead body beside her.

Friar Lawrence runs to the tomb in time to find Juliet awake. He tells her about the messenger and Romeo and asks her to leave with him. However, she refuses and stabs herself with a dagger.

The Prince arrives and Friar Lawrence tells him everything. Both the Capulets and Montagues agree to end their family feud and, instead, honour their children’s love.

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Important characters

Struggling to remember the relationships between different characters in Romeo and Juliet? Well, here’s a quick character map and description of the important characters in this tragic love story.

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Romeo Montague

Romeo is a teenage boy; son of the Montague family. He falls in love with Juliet and marries her.

He is impulsive, passionate and has an idealistic idea of love. Before meeting Juliet, he is smitten for Rosaline, Lord Capulet’s niece, who refuses his advances.

 

Juliet Capulet

Juliet is quite younger than Romeo (believed to be around 13 years old). Since she is the daughter of the Capulet family, she has limited freedom.

Juliet is stubborn, strong-willed, and rebellious. She falls in love with Romeo and marries him, despite her parents wishes for her to marry Paris.

 

Friar Lawrence

Friar Lawrence is the friar who marries Romeo and Juliet in their secret wedding.

More than just a wedding official, throughout the play, he gives advice and helps both Romeo and Juliet. However, his final plan (the sleeping potion) backfires and inadvertandly leads to the young lovers’ deaths.

 

Tybalt

Tybalt is Juliet’s cousin. He is impulsive, hot-headed and filled with violence.

He is ultimately killed by Romeo in a street brawl, after killing Mercutio, Romeo’s friend.

 

Mercutio

Mercutio is Romeo’s best friend and spends most of his time with Romeo.

He is not blood-related to the Montagues or Capulets. Instead, he is blood-related to the Prince.

Mercutio is quite volatile and witty. Shakespeare uses Mercutio as comic relief with his witty and humorous wordplay.

 

The Nurse

The Nurse is Juliet’s servant and has raised Juliet since she was born.

She is Juliet’s confidante and is very loyal to her. She even helped Juliet arrange her secret marriage with Romeo.

However, near the end of the play, the Nurse betrays Juliet by suggesting that she should marry Paris instead.

 

Montagues

Romeo belongs to the House of Montagues. They are enemies with the Capulets.

Lady Montague is sentimental as she grieves when Romeo is banished from Verona.

 

Capulets

Juliet belongs in the House of the Capulets. They are enemies with the Montagues.

Both Lord and Lady Capulet arrange a marriage for Juliet and Paris. They are not understanding of their daughter and tend to restrict her freedom.

 

Paris

Paris is a nobleman who is courting Juliet. He is arranged to marry her.

Juliet commits suicide when faced with the possibility of marrying Paris, whom she does not love. Paris fights Romeo and is killed outside Juliet’s tomb.

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Key contextual points

When you analyse Shakespeare’s texts, you need to consider his context. Try to figure out how his context is reflected in Romeo and Juliet and draw links with our modern day context.

Now, let’s see what some key contextual points are:

 

The Reformation

Shakespeare’s time was a period of political and religious conflict.

England was originally a Catholic society. They were very strict about marriage and will not allow divorces.

As such, King Henry VIII (Queen Elizabeth’s father) left the Catholic Church and reformed England into a Protestant society because he wanted to re-marry.

This was called the Reformation.

Queen Elizabeth I, the ruler at the time Shakespeare first staged this play, was a Protestant. Following in her father’s footsteps. IN contrast, Elizabeth’s half-sister Queen Mary I had been an ardent Catholic and had persecuted Protestants and attempted to return England to being a Catholic nation before her death. Elizabeth had restored the Protestant (Anglican) tradition and quelled the anti-protestant violence (replacing it with some anti-Catholic violence). Because of this,  there was a real threat of the Catholics overtaking the Church of England. Mary I’s widower, Phillip II of Spain, for example, felt that he should have inherited MAry’s throne and ruled the nation.

Clearly, this was a period of civil unrest and religious conflict. You can read more about this contextual period in our article on the Renaissance!

As such, the feud between the Capulets and Montagues can be seen as a representation of the feud between the Protestants and the Catholics.

 

The patriarchy

Shakespeare’s time was highly patriarchal. Women were given little to no rights at all.

Women were considered the father’s property who would then pass them to their future husband through marriage.

Additionally, it was common for parents to arrange marriages for their daughters and send them off at a very young age (13 years old). This was often a financial or political transaction between the 2 families.

These ideals are represented in Romeo and Juliet. The Capulets were planning to marry off their 13-year-old daughter Juliet, to a nobleman, Paris.

Furthermore, throughout the play, Juliet’s parents are consistently restricting her freedom and decisions.

 

Fate and astrology

People during the Elizabethan era were highly religious. This means that they believed in fate and that everyone’s life is already planned by God.

A significant difference between the beliefs of Catholics and the Protestants was the notion of free-will. Anglicanism, in particular, was built on the notion of predetermination, and a concept known as the great chain of being, that stated that everyone was destined to a singular position in life.

They also believed that everyone’s fate is written in the stars… astrology.

Wealthy people during this time tend to get their horoscopes read when they were making a major life decision. For example, their children’s marriage.

As such, this idea that human’s fate is written in the stars is also found in Shakespeare’s work.

In the opening prologue of Romeo and Juliet, we are introduced to “A pair of star-crossed lovers” who will ultimately die because of their parent’s conflict.

A pair of star-cross lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

This illustrates how Romeo and Juliet’s fate was already pre-determined.

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Themes

Understanding the themes in Romeo and Juliet will help you formulate stronger arguments to write about.

 

Conflict and violence

The play is ultimately about the detrimental effects of conflict and violence.

Outer conflicts

From the opening of Romeo and Juliet, we see a physical violent fight erupt between the Montagues and Capulets. Both sides express their hatred with one another and desire to ‘kill’ the other family.

SAMPSON
A dog of that house shall move me to stand.
I will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague’s.”
(Act 1, Scene 1, Line 10″

“TYBALT
What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word,
As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.
Have at thee, coward!
(Act 1, Scene 1, Line 60)

Here, the Prince’s entry and fed-up warning to the 2 families highlight that their violent fights are common. He draws insults the men by calling them beasts who need to quench their anger with blood and torture.

“Will they not hear?—What, ho! You men, you beasts,
That quench the fire of your pernicious rage
With purple fountains issuing from your veins,
On pain of torture, from those bloody hands”
(
Act 1, Scene 1, Line 73)

As such, we see that the families resort to violence and physical measures to express their deep hatred for one another.

This has ultimately led to many ill-fated deaths, including Mercutio (fight), Tybalt (fight), Paris (fight), Romeo (suicide), and Juliet (suicide).

Remember, Mercutio says, “A plague o’ both your houses!” when he realises that his death is caused by the feuding families.

 

Inner conflict

Shakespeare also explores the effects of inner conflicts, mainly through the character of Juliet.

When Juliet first realises that she is in love with Romeo, she exclaims “Prodigious birth of love it is to me, / That I must love a loathèd enemy.

Instead of happily embracing her love as others may, she instead calls love a monster.

Furthermore, Juliet struggles to accept that, Romeo, her husband, killed Tybalt, her cousin.

O serpent heart hid with a flowering face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical!
Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despisèd substance of divinest show,
Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st.
(Act 3, Scene 2, Line 74)

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Love

Shakespeare portrays love as something that is chaotic and dangerous, but also selfless and unconditional. He explores the impacts and consequences of love and the barriers to love in Romeo and Juliet.

Here, the feuding families is the largest obstacle to Romeo and Juliet’s love. The lovers are unable to explicitly show their love or be together because they are afraid of their families’ reactions.

Juliet even laments to the sky and wishes that Romeo wasn’t a Montague:

O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name”
(Act 2, Scene 2, Line 33)

However, despite these barriers, they manage to find a way to unite their love… a secret marriage.

Remember, during Shakespeare’s time, it is more common to see people get married because of financial, family or political reasons, instead of love.

However, Juliet and Romeo’s marriage is one that is based on unconditional love, not wealth. We see this with the metaphor of money when Juliet says:

They are but beggars that can count their worth,
But my true love is grown to such excess
I cannot sum up some of half my wealth.
(Act 2, Scene 6, Lines 30-32)

Although Shakespeare is promoting the need for love, he is also warning his audience about the dangers of unconditional love.

Friar Lawrence warns Romeo about his love for Juliet:

Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.
(Act 2, Scene 6)

These violent delights have violent ends
(Act 2, Scene 6)

At the end of the play, both Romeo and Juliet commit suicide because of their unconditional love for each other. Shakespeare highlights moderation is important, even in love.

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The individual vs society

Romeo and Juliet are the individuals within their parent’s society (the Capulet and Montague feud).

Their love for each other is a struggle to fight society’s norm… which puts them in danger.

We see that they get secretly married, go against their families, and even come up with dangerous elaborate plans to reunite with one another (the sleeping potion incident).

We see Juliet’s father become abusive once she refuses to marry Paris:

Hang thee, young baggage! Disobedient wretch!
I tell thee what: get thee to church o’ Thursday,
Or never after look me in the face:
Speak not, reply not, do not answer me;
My fingers itch. Wife, we scarce thought us blest
That God had lent us but this only child;
But now I see this one is one too much,
And that we have a curse in having her:
Out on her, holding!
(Act 3, Scene 5)

Here, Lord Capulet represents society, and Juliet represents society’s vulnerable members. Not once, throughout the play, did the Capulets listen to Juliet’s opinions. Instead, they were constantly making decisions for her that were in their best interest, not hers.

As such, Shakespeare highlights how society ignores the interests of their vulnerable (young people, people with lower socio-economic statuses etc) and it’s detrimental impacts (Juliet kills herself with Romeo).

 

Fate

As we discussed above in context, Shakespeare’s society believed in fate and how it controlled everyone’s life.

We saw that the opening chorus already foreshadowed Romeo and Juliet’s death: “A pair of star-cross lovers take their life

The couple is always finding ways to overcome their barriers of love. However, unfortunate events are always preventing them from being together.

For example, after Romeo and Juliet secretly marry, Tybalt was searching for Romeo to fight with him.  This ultimately led to Romeo’s exile… which separates the couple.

“Tis torture and not mercy. Heaven is here,
Where Juliet lives, and every cat and dog
And little mouse, every unworthy thing,
Live here in heaven and may look on her,
But Romeo may not.
Romeo, (Act 3, Scene 3, Line 29)

Furthermore, the date for Juliet’s marriage with Paris is moved closer, twice! Originally, the Capulets are planning to give Juliet ‘two summers’ until she is ‘ripe’ for marriage. However, after Romeo is exiled, they move it to ‘Thursday’.

Then, after Juliet plans to fake her death with a sleeping potion to meet with Romeo, the Capulets move the date until ‘tomorrow’.

This puts her plan at risk because the message may not reach Romeo in time… And that is exactly what happens.

The messenger is held back from leaving Verona because of a disease outbreak. As such, Romeo never receives the message about Juliet’s plan.

So, he kills himself beside Juliet’s ‘dead’ body’. Then, Juliet wakes up to find him dead and kills herself too.

As such, we see that there are so many untold events that prevented the lovers from being together.

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Take fate into your own hands and ace English now!

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Written by Tammy Dang

Tammy is a former student of Matrix and is now studying Law / Media (Screen and Sound Production) at UNSW. She is a Digital Content Writer for the Matrix Education blog. Tammy aspires to become a Young Offenders Lawyer in the future while continuing to create art.

 

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