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Understanding Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare between 1591 and 1595.

The play is set in Verona, Italy. It tells the story of two young lovers, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. Their families are engaged in a long-standing feud, which prompts them to marry in secret. However, their happiness is short-lived due to a series of tragic events:

  • Romeo is banished for avenging his friend Mercutio’s death by killing Tybalt, who is Juliet’s cousin.
  • Juliet fakes her death to escape with Romeo.
  • A miscommunication leads Romeo to believe she’s truly dead, causing him to poison himself.
  • Upon waking, Juliet finds Romeo dead and stabs herself.

Their tragic deaths ultimately reconcile the feuding families. This timeless play is an exploration of love, fate, conflict and the devastating consequences of hatred.

Act 1

The play opens in Verona, Italy. The environment is tense, with a street brawl erupting between the servants of the feuding noble families: the Capulets and the Montagues. The Prince intervenes, issuing a stern warning, “If ever you disturb our streets again, your lives shall pay the forfeit.”

Romeo (a Montague) is a young man who is heartbroken over his unrequited love for Rosaline. However, his sadness quickly fades when he sees Juliet (a Capulet) at a party. They fall in love at first sight, not knowing each other’s family name until after they part.

The realisation of their family ties comes as a shock, with Juliet exclaiming, “My only love sprung from my only hate!

Act 1 sets the stage for the unfolding tragedy by introducing the feud and the forbidden love. It explores the theme of love at first sight and the idea of fate, describing Romeo and Juliet as “star-crossed lovers.”

Act 2

Romeo cannot resist climbing the wall into Juliet’s garden. Here, he overhears Juliet openly declaring her love for him from her balcony, asking for “the exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine“. This leads to Romeo and Juliet confessing their love for each other and deciding to marry in secret

Friar Laurence hopes that their marriage will reconcile the feuding families. With the help of Friar and Juliet’s Nurse, they are married. During the ceremony, Friar Francis reflects, “So smile the heavens upon this holy act.

  • Friar Laurence and the Nurse are the only people who are aware of the marriage, and they are the only allies of the young lovers’ relationship.

Act 2 explores the theme of youthful impulsiveness as the two young lovers rush into marriage. It also hints at the idea of marriage as a potential solution to the feud.

Act 3

Tybalt, seeking revenge, comes looking for a fight with Romeo. Although Romeo initially refuses to fight, saying, “I do protest, I never injured thee, but love thee better than thou canst devise,” the situation escalates.

Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo’s friend, in a street brawl, which enrages Romeo. A furious Romeo avenges Mercutio’s death by killing Tybalt. Following this, Romeo is banished from Verona, leaving a distraught Juliet mourning:

Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name, when I, thy three-hours wife, have mangled it?

  • Juliet is devastated by both the loss of her cousin and her husband’s banishment

Meanwhile, Paris, a suitor favoured by her parents, proposes to Juliet, with plans to marry her in three days.

Act 3 is the turning point of the play, where love turns into tragedy. It explores the theme of revenge and its destructive consequences. Romeo and Juliet become separated for the first time, with other family members making the decisions.

Act 4

Juliet is desperate to avoid marrying Paris. She creates a plan with Friar Laurence to fake her own death, using a potion that puts her in a death-like state, as the Friar reassures her, “No warmth, no breath, shall testify thou livest.

The Friar plans to send a message to Romeo, telling him of the plan so he can return and rescue her from the tomb.

Meanwhile, the Capulet family prepare for Juliet and Paris’s wedding. However, this comes to a halt when the nurse finds Juliet in the morning, presumed dead, and cries, “She’s dead, deceased, she’s dead; alack the day!

Her family believe she is dead and therefore, they lay her in the family crypt.

Act 4 explores the theme of desperation and the lengths one might go to for love. Juliet deceives her family and only confides in the Friar. It is a short act, showing the speed at which events take place.

  • Romeo does not feature in this act

Act 5

Romeo, unaware of the plan, hears of Juliet’s “death” and despairingly declares, “I defy you, stars!

Overwhelmed with grief, he buys some poison and returns to Verona, where he encounters Paris at Juliet’s tomb. A confrontation takes place, which leads to Romeo killing Paris. Romeo then takes the poison and bids farewell, urging, “Eyes, look your last! Arms, take your last embrace!

Juliet awakens to find Romeo dead, and, in a state of despair, takes her own life with his dagger, weeping, “O happy dagger! This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die.

The tragic demise of Romeo and Juliet brings the feuding families to a resolution, symbolised by Lord Capulet extending a hand to Montague, stating, “O brother Montague, give me thy hand.

Act 5 brings the themes of love, fate and tragedy to their inevitable conclusion. Ultimately, Romeo and Juliet’s deaths serve as a powerful critique of a society that allows feuds to continue at the expense of young love. With Romeo and Juliet both taking their own lives, they fulfil their destiny, as stated at the beginning of the play.

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