A Study Guide
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2008, 2012, 2013
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.......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. Many
animated films, books, and other plays loosely follow the plot of Romeo and Juliet.
publication history of the play began in London in 1596 or 1597, when
printers John Danter and Edward Allde published a mistake-ridden
version of the play copied in the audience during a performance. Thomas
Creede published a corrected version in 1599. This version was
republished in 1609. A fourth version—based on the first and second
versions—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, so called because it
was printed on folios. A folio was a sheet of paper folded once to form
four pages, or two leaves. Other Shakespeare plays were published in
later folio editions. Most versions of Shakespeare's plays published
today are based on the First Folio.
.......The main source for the plot of the play was The
Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562), by Arthur Brooke (birth?-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
214 tales. Sources for certain plot devices or plot content probably
included Il Novellino (1476), by Masuccio of Salerno (1410-1475); Hystoria
Amanti (1530), by Luigi da
Porto (1485-153); and the ancient mythological tale of Pyramis and Thisbe.
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)
Montague, Capulet: Heads of feuding families.
Lady Montague: Wife of Montague.
Lady Capulet: Wife of Capulet.
Escalus: Prince of Verona.
Paris: Young nobleman, kinsman of Escalus. The Capulets pressure Juliet to accept his marriage proposal.
Nurse of Juliet: The nurse is Juliet's attendant, confidante, and messenger. At Juliet's behest, she meets with Romeo to sound him out on his intentions. 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: Nephew of Montague and friend to Romeo.
Tybalt: 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 the rule of 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: Servant of Romeo.
Sampson, Gregory: Servants of Capulet.
Peter: Servant 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: The girl with whom Romeo is infatuated before he meets Juliet. Rosaline does not appear in the play, but is referred to by Romeo, Benvolio, Mercutio, and Friar Laurence.
Page of Paris
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 II.
First Servingman, Second Servingman, Third Servingman: Workers in the Capulet home.
Maskers: Masked guests at the Capulet party in the first act.
Various Citizens of Verona
Relatives of the Capulets and Montagues
Guards, Watchmen, Attendants
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......In a prologue to Act I, 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: “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 they come into existence; second, in a foreshadowing of events to come, 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 I, 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!
.......Tybalt, Lord Capulet's nephew, recognizes Romeo's voice and threatens violence, asking a boy to bring him his rapier. 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
.......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:
what light through yonder window breaks?
Juliet then unburdens the weight of her thoughts:
..............O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore4
art thou Romeo?
.......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.
.............. look, love, what envious streaks
..............Yon light is not daylight, I know it,
Romeo tarries awhile
longer, then flees to Mantua, a city in Italy's Lombardy region to the
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
O my love! my wife!
.......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;
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
.......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.
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Language and Imagery
.......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, creating puns, rhyming poetry, and striking similes, metaphors, and other figures of speech. The play opens with the chorus reciting a poem in sonnet form, a device also used to open the second act. In the opening dialogue in Act I, 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.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 begins with a simile, then follows with alliterations, metaphors, hyperboles, and allusions to Petrarch’s sonnets, to Dido (the Carthaginian queen in Vergil’s Aeneid), to Cleopatra (queen of Egypt), to Helen of Troy, to Hero (a priestess of the Greek goddess Aphrodite), 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 numbers6 that Petrarch flowed in: Laura7 to his [Romeo’s] lady was but a kitchen-wench; marry8, she had a better love to be-rhyme her; Dido a dowdy; Cleopatra a gipsy; Helen and Hero hildings9 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)Imagery: 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.Imagery: Nature
The play also abounds in nature imagery, as in the following passages:Imagery: 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 III, 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)
Bid a sick man in sadness make his will (1.1.194)Anaphora
There’s no trust,Anaphora and Simile
Is love a tender thing? it is too rough,
Apostrophe and Personification
Come, civil night,Hyperbole
a sea nourish’d with lovers’ tears (1.1.182)Irony, Dramatic
In the fifth scene of Act III, lines 72-111, 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.Metaphor
What ho! you men, you beasts,Oxymoron
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health! (1.1.168)Paradox
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms! (1.1.167)Personification
And more inconstant than the wind, who woos
.......In the prologue to Act I, an actor playing the chorus recites a sonnet in which he describes the bitter hatred separating 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 events to come, 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,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.
.......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:
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)
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).
Envy Triggers the Capulet-Montague Feud;
Only an Unspeakable Shock Can End It
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
.......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:
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)
.......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 For Wealth and Social Status
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
.......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,.......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 I 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.
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.
Samuel 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.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
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