Characterization in Romeo & Juliet

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

In this lesson, you will learn the techniques William Shakespeare used to develop his characters through their dialogue, and how these techniques apply specifically to the characters in 'Romeo and Juliet.'

Characterization In Romeo & Juliet

Characterization is the way that an author develops and shows the personality of a character. This is often done in three distinct ways:

  • Through the actions of a character
  • Through direct descriptions of a character
  • Through the dialogue between characters

It can be more difficult to pick up on various personality traits while reading Romeo and Juliet versus watching a production of it because when you watch the play, you have the benefit of seeing facial expressions and gestures and hearing tones of voice. Shakespeare's written stage directions are not very detailed and do not indicate a lot about the character's personalities through actions and description, so you have to learn about the characters primarily through their dialogue.

Shakespeare's Characterization Technique: Dialogue

In Romeo and Juliet and other plays by Shakespeare, the dialogue itself is the most utilized characterization technique. Even by just using dialogue, there are several ways Shakespeare did this.

Let's take a closer look at three ways:

1. Theme and Imagery: Often there are themes or images in the dialogue of particular characters that keep repeating. For example, one character may often use words like 'fire' or 'flame,' which would indicate a temperamental, quick-to-anger personality.

2. Names: Shakespeare often gives names that connect in some way to characters' personalities This is not the case for every character, but we will discuss several examples of this in Romeo and Juliet.

3. Speech Patterns: Shakespeare also gives us clues about characters through the dialogue by giving different types of characters different speech patterns. All of the dialogue in his plays is written in iambic pentameter, which means lines, phrases, and sentences contain five sets of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. This line from Romeo and Juliet is a good example of this rhythm:

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

When the writing follows this rhythmic pattern but is not rhymed, that is called blank verse. Shakespeare often has the most important characters or characters of the highest social class speaking in blank verse. Characters who are supposed to be comedic or lower class characters often speak in more obvious rhyme.

Characters in Romeo & Juliet

Here are descriptions of each of the important characters and clues that Shakespeare gives us about their personalities through some or all of the techniques we've discussed:

Romeo: Romeo is a romantic, often impulsive, and acts upon his senses, especially in the beginning of the play. This can be seen in the way he talks, for his speech is often hyperbolic, or exaggerated, and refers to his senses. This is what he says when, at the beginning, a woman named Rosaline has spurned him:

Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs; Being purged, a fire sparkling in lover's eyes; Being vexed, a sea nourish'd with lovers' tears. What is it else? A madness most discreet, a choking gall and a preserving sweet.

In these lines, he is expressing his view on love, which is that it involves 'madness,' is completely consuming, and creates an imbalance of emotions‐either extreme happiness or extreme despair. Later in the play, other characters, including Juliet and Friar Laurence, scold Romeo for being irrational, overly emotional, and childish. The way other characters interact with him reinforce the information we learn about him through the way he talks.

Juliet: Juliet, though only 13 years old, is characterized as level-headed and calm—a sharp contrast against Romeo. Her speech is often structured as a logical argument: using 'if/then' and 'therefore' to show her reasoning. She is often thinking out loud about how their relationship could be made legitimate. These famous lines are an example of this:

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?...Deny thy father and refuse thy name… Tis but thy name that is my enemy; Though art thyself, though not a Montague.

Here, Juliet rationalizes that it is just his name that makes him her enemy, and if he gave it up, there would but nothing wrong with their relationship.

She also urges Romeo to be more level-headed and thoughtful as they try to solve their problems. On the night they swear their love to each other at her balcony she says, 'Swear not by the moon,' because the moon, changing every night as it revolves around the earth, is not constant or dependable. That same night she says, 'I have no joy of this contract to-night: It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden:' all of the things that Romeo is and she is not.

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