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Romeo and Juliet

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Romeo and Juliet in First FolioPage from First Folio, 1623
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Five acts, 3,099 lines, approx. 24,000 words

Star-crossed lovers live on, alas

Possibly Shakespeare's best-known play. Everyone knows the story of star-crossed lovers who defied their families—the feuding Capulets and Montagues—and ended their lives tragically.

Romeo and Juliet is a play with something for everyone: romance, intrigue, sword-fighting, wonderful poetry, comedy and tragedy. But it's the romance between the youngsters that Romeo and Juliet is most remembered for. The word "Romeo" has become a synonym for lover. Everyone can quote a few lines from the balcony scene.

I have little to say about this. It's simply beautiful and heart-breaking.

We could discuss the themes.

Deception: the Capulet and Montague houses against each other, the kids against their parents, the kids against each other....

The destructiveness of revenge....

The rights of young people to choose their own destinies as opposed to having them set by birth—a bigger issue in Shakespeare's day perhaps than now in western society but still a source of intergenerational conflict in many parts of the world. Interestingly, Shakespeare cribbed much of the plot of Romeo and Juliet from older sources that were well-known in his time, but in those sources the lovestruck kids were portrayed as misguided and deserving of their fates for going against their parents' wishes and against the social norms. Shakespeare's work was one of the first to elicit emotional support for a new morality....

The fickleness of fate....

The self-righteousness of youth

But that is all too much like an essay I once had to do for school. As with Shakespeare's greatest plays (and I'm thinking of Hamlet, first and foremost), you can find myriad themes throughout, without any one notion seeming to be the point the playwright was trying to make. It's embarrassing to say this, but it's just life, you know. A great story ripped from literary sources and fleshed out with insights into the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of people drawn from Shakespeare's own observations.

Romeo and Juliet is a terrifically well felts, written and constructed play. Probably the first drama in which it all came together perfectly for Shakespeare. His first truly great play. He'd write many more even greater, but never another like Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps because it's a great play by a young man (likely still in his twenties when he wrote much of it). He would never in a later play be quite so exuberantly self-righteous in his proclamation of right.

He would never again be so innocent in tragedy: Romeo and Juliet are the only tragic figures I can think of in Shakespeare's canon who are not done in by their own fatal flaws.

Unless love is a character flaw. But in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare is several years short of that kind of cynicism.

In fact, you could map out the play as detailing Shakespeare's maturation. Something of this sort is done in the film Shakespeare in Love, which shows events in the struggling young bard's life that helped inspire the play. It's all made up of course and at least one of my friends considers the film a travesty. But, with the majority of film-goers, I think it captures the spirit of Romeo and Juliet itself.

The movie captures what Romeo and Juliet captures: one's first genuine love that makes all previous amorous feelings seem like childish crushes, as though one has suddenly become grownup and has discovered eternal youth for the first time. It's when each twinge of one's feelings appears a matter of life and death, when the very fullness of what one is experiencing seems to justify sweeping away all other considerations, including all the moral concerns with which you had been inculcated since birth.

The irony is that Romeo and Juliet is one of the works that helped establish the mythology of modern love—especially the notion of being "in love"—as an overpowering emotional and personal devotion between flesh-and-blood individuals.

A terrible beauty

And that, perhaps, is too bad. We tend to remember those fated figures, Romeo and Juliet, as the eternal lovers. We forget in memory they are the central figures in a "tragedie", as Shakespeare styled it. They don't live on happily ever after and the author doesn't even suggest his dead protagonists live on together in some paradisaical afterlife for lovers (as many later novels, plays and operas will). The adolescents die and it's a tragedy for their friends and families. Or, correction, they commit suicide and it's a tragedy for their friends and families.

Yes, they each commit suicide over lost love—and isn't that beautiful! And their feuding families are brought together by their deaths—and isn't that progress? But still they are dead. Gone. No longer alive or in love, but dead. Shakespeare never implies otherwise. It's a terrible story. Check out that last line again: "For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."

Yet, so transported have we been by the newly minted experience of true love, so much had Shakespeare identified the fresh, powerful urges of the two lovers with the nature of the universe (the sun, the stars, the flowers....), that we let that feeling sweep us past the tears, past the agonies of young death. We cannot help imagining them surviving forever in some insubstantial way that defies narrow reality. True love really does conquer all.

A lovely illusion. And a dangerous one. A romantic dream that has been passed on and nurtured in countless cultural variations over the centuries with who knows what deadly results.

Not that I'm protesting. I can't really complain that Shakespeare does his job too well in this play. Though in later works he does present a more nuanced version of true love.

And not that any of this takes an iota away from the enjoyment of this most popular and important play.

— Eric


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