Romeo and Juliet: Act 1
William Shakespeare is widely recognized for his mastery of the English language and his wordplay. While the wordplay can be fascinating, it can also be frustrating for a reader who is not accustomed to reading his plays or poetry.
Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet is essential to your understanding of the rest of the play. The act opens with a brawl that displays the long-established rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets. The Capulets host a dinner party, where Romeo and Juliet meet and immediately fall in love. When Juliet realizes that Romeo is a Montague at the end of Act 1, she is understandably shocked, and she expresses her emotions in that moment.
Juliet: ''My only love sprung from my only hate! Too early seen unknown, and known too late! Prodigious birth of love it is to me, That I must love a loathed enemy.''
If you don't understand every word in the lines you just read, you aren't alone. It might help to know that prodigious means abnormal or unnatural. What Juliet is saying here is that the love she feels for Romeo is unnatural because he is supposed to be the enemy.
While you may have gotten the gist of the lines without knowing this word, understanding the vocabulary adds depth to your understanding, which helps you get more out of the storyline and learn more about the characters.
Act 1: Vocabulary
Here are the vocabulary words from Act 1 that will help you understand the narrative. Some of these definitions are archaic, meaning that they are old and outdated, but they define the language as Shakespeare is using it in the play.
Portentous: an ominous or threatening warning
Shrift: confession, especially by a priest
Grievance: a feeling of resentment or sadness over something believed to be unfair or wrong
Prolixity: unnecessarily long
Pernicious: causing harm or ruin; hurtful
Forsworn: to formally reject or disavow a former feeling or belief
Augment: enlarge in size, number, shape, or extent; increase
Posterity: future generations; descendants
Propagate: spread and promote (like an idea or theory)
Languish: to become weak or deteriorate
Tyrannous: unjustly cruel, harsh, or severe; oppressive
Beseech: to request or beg eagerly
Heretic: a person holding an opinion or belief that's different from what is largely accepted by society (often used in the context of religion)
God-den: a greeting that was used after noon
Sup: eat supper
Woe: great sorrow or distress
Parlous: great or excessive
Boisterous: noisy or energetic
Athwart: side to side (across)
Solemnity: serious and dignified (such as a person or an event)
Rapier: a thin, light, sharp-pointed sword used for thrusting
Sirrah: a man or boy of a lower status
Nuptial: a wedding
Disparage: speaking of another person in a negative or belittling way
Gall: the trait of being bold and rude; irritating
Lest: fear of some negative consequence that may come about
Thither: to or toward that place (or go there)
Hither: to this place (or come here)
Thrice: three times
Bite your thumb: a very insulting gesture
Vocabulary in Context
Let's look at some lines from the first scene in Act 1 and interpret them with our new vocabulary words:
1. In the first scene, there is a brawl between the Capulets and Montagues. One of the Capulet men, Sampson, makes a gesture to provoke the Montague men. Sampson says, ''I will bite my thumb at them, which is a disgrace to them if they bear it.''
- Translation: It's important to understand that biting your thumb at another person is viewed as a great insult. Abraham, one of the Montague men, notices the gesture and then challenges Sampson as a result. This is what ultimately leads to the brawl in the streets and puts the story in motion for the reader.
2. When Tybalt sees Romeo at the Capulet feast, he reports to Capulet and says, ''Uncle, this is a Montague, our foe, A villain that is hither come in spite, To scorn at our solemnity this night.''
- Translation: 'Uncle, this is a Montague, our enemy, who has come to deliberately offend us and to express contempt for our serious and dignified event.'
3. As Romeo leaves Juliet at the end of Act 1, Juliet says, ''But if thou mean'st not well, I do beseech thee-''
- Translation: 'If you don't mean well, I do beg you-'
In addition to the advanced vocabulary that you've already learned, it's important to have a solid grasp of the language that appears frequently in Shakespeare's works. Not only will it be easier for you to read and understand Act 1, it will also be easier for you to read and understand the rest of the play.
| Thou and Thee = you
|| Thy or Thine = your
|| Art = are
||Dost = do
| Hadst = have
|| Hath = have or has
||Shalt or Shall = will
|| Wilt = will
| Ay = yes
|| Nay = no
|| Pray Thee = ask you
|| Quoth = said
Keep these words in your Shakespeare toolbox. Understanding these words will help you unpack the plot and dig into the rest of the story.
Let's review. Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet opens with a brawl that displays the long-established rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets. Some of the vocabulary words - not only in this act but also in the rest of the play - are archaic, meaning that they are old and outdated.
- Prodigious - abnormal or unnatural
- Augment - to enlarge in size, number, shape, or extent; increase
- Forsworn - to formally reject or disavow a former feeling or belief
- Sirrah - a man or boy of a lower status, and
- Parlous - great or excessive
Just remember not to bite your thumb at anyone. You want to show your knowledge off, but you don't want to insult your audience.