Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
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Erin has been writing and editing for several years and has a master's degree in fiction writing.
We're talking about Romeo and Juliet, which is probably one of the most famous (and also depressing) love stories ever told. Pretty much everyone in high school has to read it and be newly depressed by it. It's been adapted into everything; the musical called West Side Story is amazing (tonight, tonight, won't be just any night), and lots of movies - including one with Leonardo DiCaprio before he got kind of fat and old-looking (it's a quality film) - really, any kind of movie, book or TV show that involves people in love that shouldn't be in love, like warring families, things like that. That's all coming from Romeo and Juliet.
There's this idea of star-crossed lovers , which is a big deal in this book. It basically means that fate has ordained that this is not going to work out. Their stars are crossed, if stars were the way of reading the future, which some people think it is.
If you don't know what happens, or if you've forgotten, you should pay attention because all these plot lines will make a lot more sense if you lay it over Romeo and Juliet. You'll see what's going on.
So, who's in it? We've got our cast of characters:
And then there's some other people (family-type) that we'll also meet. The play starts with kind of a prologue that basically outlines everything that's going to happen. Here it is:
'Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life…'
Did you hear it? That star-crossed lovers bit, that's where that comes from, that's right at the beginning!
Then the action starts, as all good things should, with a big street fight. In West Side Story this is represented with a dance battle. It quickly gets out of hand, this street fight, and the Prince of Verona has to step in and stop it. It kind of seems like they have to do this all the time, that things get out of hand all the time, and it's getting kind of tiresome for the people of Verona and the prince is pretty frustrated with it all.
In the mean time, with all of this, the Montagues have kind of lost track of Romeo. Then, they're able to find him. It turns out he's been sort of moping around about being in love with someone called Rosaline (so, not Juliet at the beginning - fun fact). Rosaline's decided that she's not going to love anyone (love, seemingly, in the Biblical sense), that she is maybe going to be a nun or something. This is problematic for Romeo because he is super horny, but she is not going to give in.
Despite her telling him this, and telling him she's not going to be with him, he's still determined to get into the Capulet feast (essentially, they're having a big party tonight) because she's going to be there and he wants to run into her. Luck has it, it's a masquerade party, and so they get to go with masks on.
So, they're kind of hanging around outside, and Romeo's getting a little antsy about whether this is a good idea. He talks about a bad dream that he's had. Then, his buddy, Mercutio, gives kind of an awesome, big speech about Queen Mab, who's the queen of the faeries:
'She is the fairies' midwife, and she comes
In a shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman…'
He keeps going, and this gets to be a very agitated speech. It's a really good part for an actor.
Now, we're in the Capulet camp. Juliet has just found out from her mother that she's going to have to get married, and that the dude she might have to marry is probably going to be at the party. She's not happy about this because Juliet is 14 years old. Things were different back then! But, she's still not feeling that great.
When Romeo gets to the party, Juliet's there. He sees her and the world basically stops. There's a frozen moment. They just walk up to each other and start making out. Juliet tells him, you kiss by the book, which I'm not sure is really a compliment.
Needless to say, Romeo has totally forgotten about Rosaline at this point. He's totally in love with Juliet. Nurse comes and shoos her away and informs Romeo that Juliet is a Capulet. Juliet finds out that Romeo is a Montague and the plot is laid for that to be a problem.
Now, we're in Act II and it's time for the famous balcony scene, which everyone should have seen parodied a bazillion times in something. Romeo's loitering underneath Juliet's window. He's creeping around and she comes to the window, and he cries out:
'But, soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.'
He overhears her moaning on about how Romeo is a Montague, and that's really unfortunate:
'O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name…'
She's basically asking, 'Why do you have to be called Romeo and, therefore, be a Montague? Why couldn't you just be some other dude that I was allowed to love, and that I could actually date? Why is this so awful?'
And note, wherefore in 'wherefore art thou Romeo' doesn't mean where, it basically means why or for what reason. This is a match question on OkCupid and you should get it right, or I will judge you. And also use punctuation! Anyways, wherefore is why and not where. That's the point and it's a good thing to know for life.
She goes on:
'O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd…'
She's basically saying that a rose is still a rose even if it were called nobbin or boppin or something. It would still smell the same; it would still be the same thing. So, her point is that if Romeo were called Ben, he'd still be the same awesome guy and then she could date him.
Romeo overhears this and then he kind of starts to harass her. Then, they chat across the balcony, and Juliet says:
'My ears have not yet drunk a hundred words
Of that tongue's utterance, yet I know the sound:
Art thou not Romeo and a Montague?'
Then Romeo says:
'Neither, fair saint, if either thee dislike.'
Back to Juliet:
'How camest thou hither, tell me, and wherefore?
The orchard walls are high and hard to climb,
And the place death, considering who thou art,
If any of my kinsmen find thee here…'
They talk like this for a while longer; they're kind of flirting long distance over the balcony. Romeo tells her that he really means it, that he's not going to be flighty in his love for her, which we should be suspicious of because he was just in love with Rosaline two scenes ago. He was madly in love with her, and now he's madly in love with Juliet. That's just the kind of guy he is.
Juliet says that, the next day, she will send someone to go talk to him about whether he really wants to marry her. That's kind of what they're proposing now, which is strange because it's moving super fast! They literally just met two hours ago, and now, they're talking about maybe getting married. It does skip the whole anguished 'I-don't-want-to-put-a-label-on-things' phase that most of us go through in relationships. It also seems a little terrifying, but they're in love, so that's what they're going to do.
The next morning Romeo goes to talk to his friend, Friar Lawrence, who I mentioned in the character list. He's asking for advice and asking if Friar Lawrence can marry him and Juliet later in the day. Friar Lawrence is understandably a little bit skeptical about this because he remembers the whole Rosaline thing. He knows Romeo. But he agrees to do it.
Then, Mercutio and Benvolio, Romeo's friends, kind of rag on him for abandoning them; 'bros before hoes, man,' that kind of thing. Then, the Nurse finds them. Juliet really does send the nurse out to find Romeo. She's agreed to facilitate this whole crazy plan. Juliet basically learns that she's going to show up at Friar Lawrence's place. She does, they both are there, and they get married.
This is in Act II; they're married! They've met the day before and now they're together.
Now, we're into Act III. Things seem to be going pretty really well, right? How is this a tragedy? What could possibly go wrong?
Right here is where things start to go wrong. Romeo's riding the high of being in love. They've got this crazy plan so they can spend their wedding night together. He's going to get laid, so he's really excited. He runs into Tybalt who, remember, is Juliet's cousin. Tybalt wants to challenge him to a duel and Romeo is like, 'No, I'm happy and the world is great. I don't want to fight.'
Tybalt's not having this at all; he still wants to have this fight. So, Mercutio, who's Romeo's friend, steps in and is going to fight for him and he ends up getting killed. He delivers a famous line while dying: 'A plague o' both your houses!' (Mercutio's really the best part, he has very few lines but they're all awesome.)
Romeo feels understandably guilty because he was supposed to be fighting Tybalt. So, he kills Tybalt after Tybalt kills Mercutio. He dashes off and gives another famous line: 'O, I am fortune's fool!'
He runs away, aware of the fact that he has killed his new bride's cousin (that'd be his new bride as of two hours ago). This kicks the family feud into really high gear. Juliet finds out that Romeo killed Tybalt, and she's super conflicted. She's worrying that Romeo's not going to show up for their wedding night.
Romeo's freaking out at Friar Lawrence's house about the same thing. He's convinced Juliet's going to think he's a monster, that she's not going to want him anymore because he killed her cousin (that might be a fair assumption).
He finds out that he's been sentenced to be banished, which he thinks is worse than death because he'll be alive but he can't be with Juliet. Things are not looking good for Romeo. Nurse shows up and says, 'No, you come to the bedroom anyway. We're going to make this work out.'
So, he does and they have a great time on their wedding night. Juliet doesn't want him to go in the morning because they had such a nice time. But, he has to or he'll risk arrest and potential death because he's not supposed to be in the city anymore.
So, Juliet says:
'Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.'
'It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale: look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east:
Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.'
They're basically fighting about whether it's morning or night and what bird it is they're hearing. Juliet's saying, 'No, it's the nightingale, it's nighttime still,' but Romeo is like, 'No, it's the lark, it's morning.'
Romeo is obviously correct, and so, he bounces just in time. Juliet's mother rolls in and says, 'Guess what? You're going to get married on Thursday and it's going to be to this guy named Paris.' That's the end of Act III - she has a great wedding night with Romeo and it turns out she has to get married, again, to somebody else, soon.
This is bad. We're going to figure out a way to solve all this, and that's what they try to do. So, she goes to see Friar Lawrence. He's kind of the go-to guy in all of this, it seems. He has a dastardly plan because he's a smart guy.
He says, 'Juliet, say you're going to get married, but the night before you're supposed to get married, you'll drink this potion and it's going to make you look like you're dead. You'll be asleep, you'll be fine, but it's just going to look like you're dead. Then you'll get put in the Capulet tomb, we'll alert Romeo of what's going on, he'll come and collect you, and then you can go live happily ever after… but not in Verona.'
Why they couldn't just run away together, I'll never fully understand. I guess this is so they won't go looking for her. This seems to be the way that Friar Lawrence wants it to go down.
So they do this plan, it works; everyone thinks Juliet is dead and she gets put in the tomb. So far; so good. That's the end of Act IV - she doesn't have to get married, and Paris is really upset, obviously, and her parents are devastated. But, it looks like she's going to get to be with Romeo.
The problem (in Act V) is that Romeo gets the message that she's dead, but he doesn't get the message that she's actually faking it. So, he's freaking out. He goes and buys some poison so he can spend another night with her (a.k.a. die with her).
He turns up at the tomb, and runs into Paris, who's there mourning her as well, because he was about to marry her. They get in a fight, and Romeo actually kills him too! So, now there's quite the body count for something that started out really nice and romantic.
Romeo goes in, and he kisses Juliet and then he takes the poison. Now, he's actually dead. She wakes up, finds him dead and tries to drink the rest of the poison, but here isn't any left, so, she stabs herself and says:
'O, happy dagger,
Find thy sheath.'
So, the final two lines of the play are:
'For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.'
Kind of a nice little rhyme there at the end. So, that's what happens!
You can see that it really starts off great and lighthearted, and then it makes a horrible turn for the depressing about halfway through. It resonates throughout the age. I mentioned before that there are so many adaptations; so many things are based on it. I think it really resonates because there's something just so awful about people who want to be in love and they can't be in love.
It puts a lot of emphasis on this idea of fate. That's the whole star-crossed thing that we mentioned at the beginning. It's the idea that they're pre-ordained to have problems. You might remember that after Romeo kills Tybalt (and Tybalt killed Mercutio) that he cried out, 'I am fortune's fool!' What he's saying by that is that he's sort of feeling tossed about by fate and fortune, so that he's forced to kill a relative of his beloved.
All throughout those early happy scenes, there is kind of a sense of foreboding and fate. Romeo's bad dream before he goes to the party (that sets Mercutio off on the big, long speech) is about whether this will set off a bad cascade of events. But, he goes anyway.
That's important - that in Romeo and Juliet, there's this idea that love is worth it anyway or is worth pursuing even in the face of fate, even though Romeo was in love with Rosaline only two days before. So, maybe it really worked out for the best, because if they stayed together, he would've just been fickle and gone off to somebody else. But this way, they die forever immortalized together in their love. Their love is perfect and crystallized and frozen in time, and is perpetuated throughout literature as it goes forward.
So, that's Romeo and Juliet. That's the summary and a little discussion of fate.
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 138 lessons | 10 flashcard sets