Reading Guides for Romeo and Juliet

Reading Guides: Romeo and Juliet

I, i-iii

Shakespeare begins Act I (and Act II, as we shall see later) with a Prologue, which would have been delivered by a single actor on stage as an introduction to the play.  Note the reference to “civil blood” and “civil hands” in line 4 – think of “civil” as in “civil war.”  W.H. Auden said that Romeo and Juliet is the tragedy of a city, and the political aspect of the play is important but oft overlooked.

Scene i begins with two Capulet servants spoiling for a fight with their Montague counterparts, establishing the feud alluded to in the Prologue.  This scene is initially comic (with a number of puns, jokes, and references difficult for the modern reader to translate), but becomes more serious as Benvolio (a Montague kinsman) and Tybalt (a Capulet cousin) enter the fight.  These two characters have completely opposing attitudes toward the battle, a difference that defines their respective characters.  Prince Escalus, ruler of Verona, finally appears to end the fighting, and his speech in lines 80-102 provides an important plot point that will affect a key element of the action later.  Romeo himself finally makes his first appearance after we discover that his parents are worried about him.  Benvolio gets Romeo to admit his basic problem – his girlfriend has dumped him.  Note how he is reacting to being jilted – a good clue to an important element of Romeo’s personality.

Scene ii shifts to the Capulet household.  Paris, an important relative of the Prince, wants to marry Capulet’s daughter Juliet.  Capulet’s response (look especially at his speech beginning in line 13) is somewhat unexpected.  Remember that during this time daughters were considered the property of their fathers, and a father saw as his primary responsibility to marry his daughters off to suitable (i.e. wealthy) husbands.  As the scene ends, we return to Benvolio and Romeo; Benvolio suggests an antidote for Romeo’s depression, another turning point in the developing plot. (We also find the name of Romeo’s erstwhile girlfriend – line 85). 


I, iii-v

Two important supporting characters appear in these scenes; pay careful attention to their personalities.  In scene iii, we meet Juliet’s nurse, who joins in the conference between Juliet and her mother, Lady Capulet on the subject of Juliet’s possible marriage to Paris.  (Note the important difference in attitude between Lady Capulet and Lord Capulet on this subject.)  If you can’t understand the Nurse, don’t be alarmed; no one else can, either, which is a key element of her character.  In this way, she is somewhat like Romeo’s friend Mercutio, who appears in scene iv to join Romeo and Benvolio on the way to the Capulet party.  Mercutio is another character whose personality is reflected in his name – look up the word mercurial.

Scene v is most famous for the meeting between Romeo and Juliet, but note too the interaction between Tybalt and Lord Capulet.  Tybalt, predictably, is ready to fight the party crashers, but note Lord Capulet’s moderate and reasonable response.  However, when Tybalt attempts to defy his uncle, we see another, important side of the elder Capulet. 

Romeo and Juliet’s meeting will be discussed in some detail in class, but pay particular attention to Juliet’s responses, particularly “You kiss by th’ book”  -- what do you think she means by this?

II, i-iii

Shakespeare adds a prologue to Act II; look carefully at what he emphasizes in lines 1-2 and especially line 6.  Scene ii is the most famous in the play, Romeo and Juliet’s second meeting where they first exchange soliloquies, then actually have their first serious discussion.  It is here that we first start to see important, significant differences in the personalities of these two characters, reflected primarily in the way they speak (look particularly closely beginning around line 65).  In line 85, Juliet is touchingly vulnerable, worrying that Romeo might find her “too quickly won” (95) and that he might not be sincere (91-93).  Note here what she seeks from Romeo – does he give it to her successfully?  In line 117, she expresses (sensible) misgivings about the whole affair.  What worries her?

In scene iii, we meet our last important character, Friar Laurence (a friar is a kind of clergyman).  He begins with a soliloquy designed to give important insight into his character, an insight which makes sense of the important decision he makes at the end of this scene (cf. “Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,/And vice sometimes by action dignified” – 21-22).  The Friar is quite stern with Romeo in this scene about his change of heart, but agrees to marry the young lovers anyway – note why in line 92.


II, iv-vi

Act II wraps up with an interesting collection of scenes leading up to the marriage of the young lovers.  The structural purpose of scene iv is to get Juliet to Friar Laurence’s cell for the elopement; however, the scene is interesting in point of character by revealing a bit more of Mercutio.  The dialogue here is again dense and full of obscure puns and allusions, but the upshot is that Mercutio’s humor, as directed here toward the not-very-young and not-very-attractive Nurse becomes quite aggressive and offensive, such that Romeo feels the need to apologize for it in line 145.  Look closely at Juliet’s soliloquy at the beginning of scene v – what perhaps surprising new quality in her is here revealed?  The Nurse, perceptively, teases her young charge in lines 70ff. about her eagerness to marry Romeo.

Scene vi is the marriage, and both Friar Laurence and Juliet have their misgivings.  In line 9, the Friar warns Romeo that “These violent delights have violent ends,” and Juliet and Romeo have a typical exchange in lines 26-34 about the relationship between words and love.


III, i-ii

Scene i is the first “action” scene of the play, and presents the first serious plot complication.  The rising action begins with Romeo and Juliet’s meeting and subsequent marriage; the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt present the first concrete obstacle (beyond the general issue of the feud between the families) to move the plot forward.  This scene does present some difficulties in staging that even Shakespeare himself cannot entirely avoid.  The introduction to the scene, however, deals effectively with the complexities of the character interaction.  Mercutio (again speaking in prose) is in one of his moods, with his usual fun-loving air turning again dark as he berates Benvolio (of all people) for being too quarrelsome.  Romeo’s response to Tybalt (remember that Romeo has just married Tybalt’s cousin) is a good example of deliberate obscurity, another connection to our theme of failures of communication.  Here we see Romeo telling Tybalt why he will not fight using intentionally misleading language – cf. 61-62 or 70-71.  Mercutio takes up Romeo’s fight for several reasons – his own dark mood, his personal dislike of Tybalt (as we saw in II, iv), and perhaps most importantly, the shame of Romeo’s seeming cowardice (73).  In one of the most famous ironies of the play, Romeo’s attempt to break up the fight leads to Mercutio’s death.  Here the awkwardness of the scene’s necessities becomes apparent – Tybalt runs away long enough for Mercutio to make his famous death speech (“A plague a’ both your houses”) and for Romeo, interestingly enough, to blame Juliet for his actions (113-14).  Then, mysteriously, a furious Tybalt returns so that Romeo, angered by his friend’s death and his own ignominious behavior, can kill him.  Then Romeo exists so that Benvolio (in one of his main functions in the play) can tell us in 40 or so lines of expository dialogue what we have just seen. J  Note the Prince’s punishment of Romeo, recalling his speech in I, i, where he promised death to any who brawled in the street.  What does the Prince’s amelioration of that sentence reveal about him, and what future problems could it cause?  (Note the irony created in the Prince’s final line – “Mercy but murders, pardoning those who kill.”) 

Note what Juliet reveals in her soliloquy to open scene ii.  What is she waiting impatiently for, and why?  Her language, too, becomes enormously important. In such lines as 19, or 22-25, whom does she sound like?  More obscurity and failure of communication, unsurprisingly, in the Nurse’s report to Juliet of Tybalt’s death at Romeo’s hands.  What rhetorical device does Juliet resort to in her response (73-85), and where have we heard it before?


III, iii-v

Scene iii begins with Romeo and Friar Laurence and presents some of Romeo’s most egregious dialogue (especially 29-51 where he wishes to be a fly so that he might touch Juliet’s hand).  The friar finally gets fed up with Romeo’s self-pitying lamentation and upbraids him severely (and effectively) in 109ff.  Here the plan is established that Romeo will consummate the marriage that night and flee to Mantua to wait for everyone to “cool off.” 

Scene iv presents our next plot complication as Capulet decides to marry Juliet to Paris; look carefully at his motivation.  Scene v is one of the most wrenching in the play.  As Romeo prepares to leave Juliet the next morning, she begs him to stay – note how the two characters have effectively switched roles from the balcony scene of II, ii.  Romeo’s final departure is followed by Lady Capulet’s news of the upcoming marriage.  Juliet’s response reflects, as Romeo’s to Tybalt in III, i, more deliberate obscurity of language (86-87, 94-103, 123-24).  Lord Capulet’s reaction to the news that Juliet has refused to marry Paris is not unexpected, given his reaction to Tybalt’s disobedience in I, v, but is frightening nonetheless in the intensity of its fury.  Pay particular attention to 177-97.  Juliet is left alone, with even the Nurse advising her to forget Romeo and marry Paris (215-27), and she ends Act III contemplating suicide.



Act IV, despite having a full complement of five scenes, is short and rapid, preparing the next important plot complication.  Juliet, despairing over her impending bigamy, goes to Friar Laurence as a last-ditch effort before suicide.  Meeting Paris there, she, as she had done before with her mother in III, v, answers him in carefully disguised language (18-36).  Friar Laurence presents to her a plan he himself characterizes as “desperate,” as outlined in lines 89-120.  Consider why the Friar comes up with such a convoluted plan rather than simply admitting the truth to the Montague and Capulet families. 

In scenes ii-v, Shakespeare alternates festive scenes (the preparations for Paris’s and Juliet’s wedding) with comic servants with serious scenes of Juliet’s torment.  The effectiveness of the juxtaposition is debatable (recall our discussion of some of the clumsiness of III, i), but consider the purpose and effect the playwright is reaching for.  Juliet has a wrenching soliloquy in scene iii; what fears about the Friar’s plan does she express in 24-58 as she becomes more and more hysterical?  Scene v portrays Juliet’s “death;” Lord Capulet’s response (34-40, 59-64).



At this point in the play, we are one plot complication away from the climax – that point at which the end is inevitable and there are no more choices to be had.  It occurs in scene ii, when we learn that Friar Laurence’s message to Romeo about his and Juliet’s desperate plan has been delayed, and that Romeo, believing Juliet to be dead, is planning his own suicide.  Note that in V, i, Romeo responds to news of Juliet’s “death” by saying “Then I defy you, stars!”  The reference to “stars” here, as in “star-cross’d lovers” in the prologue to Act I, refers to the astrological belief that the stars ruled man’s fate or destiny.  As you read the ending of the play, consider the roles of destiny, fate, and/or chance in shaping the final fates of the characters here.

Scene iii gives us a final wry dramatic irony in lines 92-96, where Romeo notes that Juliet does not at all look dead (which he predictably attributes to her great beauty). Of course, Romeo cannot even kill himself without delivering a 45-line speech; when Juliet awakens to find Romeo’s corpse, she prefaces her death with “Then I’ll be brief” (169).