6 Story

We can think of the characters in Romeo and Juliet as lining up in two family teams:

The Capulets (Juliet’s family) The Montagues (Romeo’s family)
Capulet – head of household Montague – head of household
Lady Capulet – his wife Lady Montague – his wife
Juliet – their thirteen-year-old daughter Romeo – their son, in his late teens/early twenties
Tybalt – Juliet’s cousin Benvolio – their nephew and Romeo’s cousin and friend
Family servants – Sampson, Gregory and another (unnamed) Family Servants – Abram and another ( unnamed)
Nurse — who looked after Juliet as a baby Romeo’s Servant – Balthazar
Nurse’s servant – Peter

Two peacemakers (umpires) occupy the middle ground between the two teams, but their authority isn’t effective and their luck is terrible.

  • The first is Prince Escalus, Governor of Verona.
  • The second is Father Lawrence, Romeo’s friend and advisor.

Full of energy and a brilliant talker, Mercutio, who is a kinsman of Prince Escalus, also inhabits the middle ground between the family factions. Romeo’s friend and verbal sparring partner, his hot-headedness and aggressive self-belief match those of Juliet’s cousin Tybalt. These two touchy egoists set the play on its path to tragedy. Paris, Juliet’s suitor, is also a kinsman of Prince Escalus.

For accessible descriptions with multiple images of characters, go to the Royal Shakespeare Company for an interactive experience.

A striking feature of Romeo and Juliet is its narrative economy, the speed with which it tells a story that is full of strong emotions and athletic and violent physical action. These are a challenge for actors and directors but highly engaging for audiences. For a detailed time scheme and sequence of events see Weis (25-27) or read Evans’ summary (10).

Romeo and Juliet notes the time more precisely and in more detail than any other Shakespearean play. Everything happens in four days, from early Sunday morning to dawn on the following Thursday. During that short time, Romeo falls out of love with one woman and into love with another, marries, consummates the love, travels from Verona to Mantua and back again, slays two men in duels, and dies. Juliet falls in love, marries, consummates the love, defies her parents, pretends to die, and dies. Both timing and ideas about time are central to Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare summarises the plot, including the tragic ending, in the ‘Shakespearean’ or ‘English’ sonnet that forms the Prologue. The Chorus, an actor in the company, first attracts the audience’s attention and then aids understanding by listing the events that are to follow.

Considered just as a story, Romeo and Juliet is ‘up there’ with the best. However, to enjoy this masterwork to the full, to respond to its poetry and drama, and to uncover the insights that Shakespeare provides into love, life and death, you should read the script more than once.  I recommend that you pause and think after each act. Shakespeare’s dense poetic language carries much of the play’s meaning. ‘Translation’ into contemporary prose weakens and elides this meaning. I hope that the outline following, which describes events in order, will help you to read the original with understanding.

Act One: First Meeting 

Romeo and Juliet first meet in Act 1, and the climax to the act is their mutual declaration of love. Act 1 introduces all the important characters (except for one), and dramatises their relationships. Like the first act of As You Like It, Act 1 of Romeo and Juliet is packed with events. They climax in the Capulets’ ball in scene 5. Both the threat and the actuality of physical violence are constant, but at this stage the violence is exciting and the outcomes are comic.

In scene 1, set early on Sunday morning, the opening bawdy dialogue between two Capulet servants, full of puns and jokes, at once engages the audience. When the Montague servants come upon them a fight begins (more excitement). The heads of the two households are eager to join in, but their wives object.

Explore the Text

  1. Find a sexual pun in Samson and Gregory’s dialogue (There are many!)
  2.  Which upper-class Capulet, i.e. gentleman, tries to stop the fight?
  3. Which upper-class Montague attacks him?
  4. Who puts an end to the brawl, threatening punishments?

In a quiet interval after the tumult Montague and his wife question their nephew Benvolio about their son Romeo, who has withdrawn from society and is generally behaving oddly. Benvolio promises to question Romeo, who opportunely appears. Romeo confides that he is in hiding because he is love-sick. He avoids telling Benvolio the name of his beloved and rejects his advice to love someone else, but Benvolio says he will keep trying to convince him (Act 1, scene 1, lines 233-247).

The first part of Act 1, scene 2 is set in the Capulet household on Sunday afternoon.

Explore the Text

  1. Which young man applies to become Juliet’s husband?
  2. Where does Capulet say that the two young people will be able to see each other and perhaps converse?
  3. What does Capulet say about Juliet’s consent?

A comic sequence follows (still part of scene 2), in which Romeo reads the guest list for the ball to a Capulet servant who can’t read, but to whom Capulet has given the job of inviting the guests. Benvolio advises Romeo to attend the ball in disguise, to check out the girls and find a replacement for Rosalind (by now he has discovered her name). Romeo replies that he will attend, but only so that he can rejoice in Rosalind’s ‘splendor’ (Act 1, scene 2, line 107).

Sunday evening centres on female members of the Capulet household.

Explore the Text

  1. Who are the female Capulets?
  2. What news do the older characters impart to Juliet?
  3. Which character in this scene has the most lines?
  4. For what purpose, or combination of purposes, does this character have so much to say? Your answer might focus on characterisation, background, comedy, sentiment, or whatever interests you.

Sunday night: a contrasting scene involves young men. Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio are on their way to the ball disguised as ‘Masquers.’ Masques were elaborate entertainments created by professional poets, architects, composers, and musicians, and acted by aristocrats and courtiers.[1] At the masqued ball (masquerade) in Romeo and Juliet, the faces of the hosts and guests at the party are covered, so the young Capulets believe they can party-crash without being detected.

Queen Mab Speech, Romeo and Juliet Act 1, scene 4′ by National Theatre [2:31 mins]:

Act 1, scene 5, in which Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time at the ball on Sunday night, is the climax to Act 1. They fall in love and then discover that they belong to enemy houses.

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 loathèd enemy. (lines 152-155)

You can watch the lovers’ first sight of each other, as movingly portrayed in Baz Luhrmann’s film Romeo and Juliet (1996) here.

Explore the Text

The ball is full of danger for the three Capulet party-crashers.

  1. What part does Tybalt play in increasing the suspense? What does he decide after he loses the argument with his uncle Capulet?
  2. Romeo’s and Juliet’s first words to each other take the form of a sonnet.
  3. How many features of a Shakespearean sonnet’s form can you detect in lines 92-105? (see above).
  4. What discoveries, carrying the suspense forward into Act Two, do Romeo and Juliet make about each other at the end Act One?

Act Two: Courtship and Wedding

This is the ‘happy Act’ of Romeo and Juliet, telling the story of the young couple’s sudden love. Two adult onstage characters approve and assist Romeo’s and Juliet’s mutual courtship, but the lovers’ meetings are in secret, and their two families’ hatred overhangs events like a dark cloud that will inevitably break.

In Scene 1, very early on Monday morning, Romeo hides among the trees (line 30) near the Capulet gardens and listens with the audience to Mercutio’s and Benvolio’s conversation as they search for him.

Explore the Text

Find a sexual pun in Mercutio’s dialogue.

Act 2, scene 2, leading into Monday’s dawn, is the famous ‘Balcony Scene,’ the classic juxtaposition in world literature of love with the threat of death. Scholars have argued about where Juliet would have stood when the scene was first staged at The Curtain and The Globe theatres.[2]

The romantic painting by Frank Bernard Dicksee (1884) reproduced in the introduction to our study of Romeo and Juliet, brings the lovers closer together physically than they could have been in Shakespeare’s playhouse, but beautifully evokes their feelings for each other. In this scene, Romeo and Juliet reveal their love in soliloquies to the audience before they speak to each other.

ROMEO: But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she. (Act 2, scene 2, lines 2-6)

JULIET: O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name,
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet. (Act 2, scene 2, lines 36-39)

Explore the Text

  1. Find the line in which Juliet on the balcony first discovers Romeo’s presence.
  2. The play’s opening Prologue refers to a ‘death-marked love’ (line 9). Find a line in the Balcony Scene in which one of the lovers refers to the threat of death.
  3. Whose off-stage voice interrupts the lovers?
  4. How many times does Juliet retreat from the balcony before she finally leaves the scene?
  5. What plans have the lovers made by the end of the scene?

Act 2, scene 3 introduces Friar Lawrence, the last of Romeo and Juliet’s important characters.

Figure 21. Romeo and Juliet with Friar Laurence by Henry William Bunbury(1750-1811). Painted between 1792-1796. Public domain

This scene is written in rhyming couplets, continuing the form introduced by the lovers’ farewells and Romeo’s soliloquy ending scene 2. Friar Lawrence’s opening soliloquy and his advice to Romeo are packed with generalised truths and philosophical or moral ideas in the form of sententiae,[3] then valued as a valid poetic form, for example:

Care keeps his watch in every old man’s eye,
And where care lodges, sleep will never lie. (lines 37-38)

Explore the Text

Can you find another couplet containing a sententia, either in Friar Lawrence’s soliloquy or during his conversation with Romeo?

The scene’s dramatic interest is the contrast between Romeo’s impetuosity and the Friar’s advice to act considerately, and in the tension over whether or not the Friar will consent to marry Romeo and his sudden new love. Friar Lawrence portrays Romeo’s former love Rosaline as someone he once loved dearly (‘thou didst love so dear’) but has forgotten:

So soon forsaken? Young men’s love then lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes. (lines 71-72)

Romeo defends his change of heart in a few simple, moving lines that reveal his youthfulness:

I pray thee, chide me not. Her I love now
 Doth grace for grace and love for love allow.
 The other did not so. (lines 91-93)

The scene concludes with Friar Lawrence hoping that this alliance (the wedding) will be a happy one and achieve peace between the warring households.

Set at noon on Monday, Act 2, scene 4 is a joyous celebration of youthful energy and young love. The verbal and physical comedy is all the more moving because of the dangers and threats of death evident beneath its bright surface. Most of the jokes are sexual. The scene has three sections:

  • Pun and joke competitions among Benvolio, Mercutio and Romeo.
  • A scene of physical comedy, but still with verbal jokes, played out between the three young men on one side and the Nurse and her servant Peter on the other.
  • Planning, still with verbal jokes, between Romeo and the Nurse for Romeo’s and Juliet’s wedding that evening.

Explore the Text

  1.  How does Act 2, Scene 4 set up Tybalt as a formidable swordsman and potential fighter of both Mercutio and Romeo?
  2. How does Romeo sum up Mercutio’s verbosity?
  3. How does the Nurse respond to Mercutio?
  4. How does the Nurse feel about Juliet and Romeo (lines 191-198)?
  5. What plans for his wedding to Juliet does Romeo impart to the Nurse?

Act 2, scene 5 is set soon after noon on Monday when the Nurse brings news of Romeo’s wedding plans to Juliet. The Nurse’s teasing of Juliet with delays and distractions before she reveals the plans builds suspense. Once again, the scene contrasts the deliberateness and infirmities of age with the speed and impulsiveness of youth.

Explore the Text

What metaphors in Juliet’s soliloquy (lines 1-17) contrast the eagerness of youthful love with the slowness of age? (There’s a long list—see how many you can find!)

So much happens in so short a time!

In scene 6, the wedding of Romeo and Juliet on Monday afternoon is the climax and close of Act 2. Friar Lawrence’s advice that they should love moderately and enjoy long lives, is sidelined by Romeo’s and Juliet’s professions of eager love and equal passion.

Figure 22. The Marriage of Romeo and Juliet (1830) by Francesco Hayez (1791-1882). Oil on canvas. Public domain

Act Three: Disaster and Joy

At the start of Act 3, the realities of violence and death in a tense and hot Verona overwhelm both the promise of married love and the hope of peace between families.

Scene 1 opens about an hour after the wedding, with another battle of wits between Romeo’s friends Mercutio and Benvolio. Mercutio accuses Benvolio of being over-ready to fight. His list of examples is an ironic fantasy, since, as his name foretells, Mercutio is ‘mercurial,’ and of all the play’s young men he is most prone to acting with passionate haste.

Explore the Text

Where, earlier in the play, has Benvolio demonstrated that he is both a peace-lover and a peace-maker? Explain the irony of Benvolio’s response: ‘An I were so apt to quarrel as thou art, any man should buy the fee-simple of my life for an hour and a quarter.’ (lines 30-32)

The verbal sparring between Benvolio and Mercutio transforms into a deadly physical fight when Tybalt, Petruchio, and other Capulet supporters come on the scene. The tragic irony is that Mercutio, who is neither a Capulet nor a Montague, but a relative of Prince Escalus, dies in the battle that follows.

The Prince’s entrance converts the physical violence into a legal battle.

  • Benvolio and Montague plead that Romeo’s killing of Tybalt delivered justice for Tybalt’s slaying of Mercutio.
  • Capulet and his wife insist passionately that they want ‘justice’ (line 182) for Tybalt’s slaying: ‘Romeo must not live’ (line 183).

Setting aside both the Montagues’ plea for his exoneration and the Capulets’ for his execution, Prince Escalus sends Romeo into exile.

Act 3, scene 2, the scene of Juliet’s maturing, is the second scene in which Juliet at home is waiting for news of outside events. Her beautiful opening soliloquy begs the daylight hours to pass swiftly so that she and Romeo can consummate their now-married love.

Juliet’s lines assume the ideal of marriage as a loving, life-long union, undertaken between two people of different sexes, who first experience sex on their wedding night. This is the Christian ideal promoted in Europe for centuries by Church and State. Juliet’s speech is nevertheless remarkable because, as the bride, she anticipates her first love-making with uninhibited delight. Most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries understood such sexual feelings as the prerogative of the groom. You might like to read two erotic poems, of Shakespeare’s time and slightly later, that are written entirely from the male lover’s viewpoint. Juliet’s soliloquy, however, is their equal:

  •  Edmund Spencer’s ‘Epithalamion,’ written for his bride, Elizabeth Boyle, on their wedding day in 1594
  • John Donne’s ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed‘ was refused printing in 1633 because of its sexual explicitness.

In Romeo and Juliet, the joyful, excited opening of Act 3, scene 2 quickly dissolves into tension and despair. The Nurse interrupts Juliet’s wedding hymn by apparently announcing Romeo’s death. Suddenly we meet a mature Juliet who prefers oblivion to hearing such news, and a Nurse whose comic verbosity carries the seeds of tragedy. When the Nurse finally conveys the truth, that Romeo has killed Tybalt and has been banished (lines 69-72), Juliet’s reactions follow a sequence. She grows up before our eyes.

Explore the Text

  1. Lines 73-84 are made up of oxymorons and paradoxes. Find some examples.
  2. To whom does Juliet address these lines? Who is she talking about? What is the audience’s likely reaction?
  3. How does the Nurse respond to Juliet’s lines? (lines 85-89)
  4. Lines 90-95 rebut the Nurse. Juliet’s more considered response to the disaster follows in lines 97-127 beginning, ‘And shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?’ This speech expresses Juliet’s intense love for Romeo, while being also a speech of Juliet’s maturing, in which, however, she imposes precedence on disasters: Tybalt’s killing is horrific, but Romeo’s banishment is unbearable.
  5. Juliet sends a ring to Romeo as a token of her constancy. Her closing lines (142-143) refer to him as her ‘true knight’. In your view, is this an accurate judgment of Romeo?

The end of Act 3, scene 2 shows the Nurse at her best: she’ll find Romeo so that he can comfort Juliet.

Act 3, scene 3, a parallel scene of Romeo’s maturing, moves at a slower pace, perhaps inviting the generalisation that young men grow up more slowly than young women. Far from being ‘knightly,’ Romeo’s responses to Friar Lawrence’s news of his banishment follow a sequence of emotions.

  • In the beginning, he has hidden himself from fear of retribution—an action that modifies his image as a heroic swordsman and avenger of his friend demonstrated at the beginning of the act.
  • Romeo’s second response is to realise that banishment is worse than execution since it will separate him from Juliet.
  • Lawrence attempts consolation and mentoring, but Romeo falls to the ground in despair in what an audience might see as a tantrum. Like Juliet, Romeo regards separation as more terrible than death.
  • The Nurse’s lines remind Romeo that Juliet may now think of him as a murderer. Romeo tries to kill himself, but Lawrence or the Nurse snatches the dagger away.
  • Lawrence chides Romeo at length for acting a) like a woman and b) like a badly behaved girl—sexist language which, unacceptable today, invites the audience to compare his and Juliet’s responses to the disaster.

Explore the Text

  1. According to the Friar, what reasons does Romeo have for hoping for a better future after he has fled to Mantua (Mantua is about 21 miles or 34 kilometres from Verona).
  2. Which lines from Friar Lawrence and the Nurse raise Romeo’s spirits at the end of the scene?

In Act 3, scene 4, very late on Monday evening, Capulet, Lady Capulet, and Paris agree that Juliet will marry Paris the following Thursday. Sandwiched between Juliet’s and Romeo’s despair over Romeo’s banishment and the bliss followed by anguish of their wedding night, this scene develops an ironic contrast between the truth of Romeo’s and Juliet’s love and the Capulets’ false assumptions as parents.

Explore the Text

  1. Where, early in Romeo and Juliet, have Capulet, Lady Capulet and Paris already discussed Juliet’s marriage?
  2. How does Capulet’s attitude to her marrying Paris change throughout Act 3, scene 4?
  3. For what reasons or in response to which circumstances does his attitude change, and how compelling are they?
  4.  How far does Capulet believe that Juliet should be consulted about her choice of a husband?
  5. How obedient a daughter does Capulet believe Juliet to be?

Act 3, scene 5, Romeo’s departure on Monday after the lovers’ first and only night of love-making fully deserves its reputation for tragic beauty. Weis points out that the opening 36 lines are an aubade, a traditional song of lovers’ parting at dawn (271). At first, Juliet refuses to believe that dawn, when Romeo must flee Verona or die, has truly broken. When he decides to stay for love of Juliet, she realises his danger and urges him to depart—an effective dramatic sequence that maintains the twin streams of love and danger that pervade the play.

Romeo's departure after his banishment. He holds Juliet while her nurse looks on
Figure 23. Romeo and Juliet Farewell by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872-1945). Public domain

The aubade is staged on Juliet’s balcony (the upper stage in The Curtain and The Globe), and Romeo descends to the main stage by the ‘rope of cords’ that the Nurse first brought on stage in Act 3, scene 2. Hastened by the Nurse’s warning of the imminent arrival of Juliet’s mother, the lovers’ parting is made darker by what will prove to be their last sight of each other.

Explore the Text

Find the lines in which Juliet and Romeo imagine or predict the future of their love.

The remainder of scene 5 is a sequence in which Juliet is bullied and abandoned, as Lady Capulet, Capulet, and lastly, even the Nurse, insist that she prepare for a wedding to Paris on Thursday. Juliet’s resistance to her parents’ attitudes and plans is expressed in both her double entendres[4] and her open defiance, as in these lines:

I pray you tell my lord and father, madam,
I will not marry yet; and when I do, I swear
It shall be Romeo, whom I know you hate,
Rather than Paris. These are news indeed! (lines 125-128)

Explore the Text

  1.  Trace the sequence of the Capulets’ reactions to Juliet’s defiance and (finally) pleading.
  2. The Nurse’s capitulation to the Capulets’ viewpoint comes at lines 213-226. This is a speech of weakness and betrayal, but in disappointing both Juliet and the audience the Nurse maintains her comic persona. In what ways is this speech comic?
  3. Juliet’s closing soliloquy dismisses the Nurse as: ‘Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend!’ (line 236). How far does the Nurse deserve Juliet’s condemnation?

The following is a well-acted and well-choreographed scene of Capulet’s bullying of Juliet. What features, if any, differ from Shakespeare’s text, and how disturbing are they?

‘Juliet pleads with her father’ by Stratford Festival [2:35 mins]:

Act Four: Juliet

Act 4 belongs to Juliet. In Act 4, scene 1, set on Tuesday morning in Friar Lawrence’s cell, the rhymed stichomythia (line-for-line dialogue) of Juliet’s and Paris’s exchange (lines 18-36) suggests measure and order. The technique invites audiences to contrast Paris’ sincere but conventional love with Juliet’s and Romeo’s intense passion. After Paris leaves, Juliet’s desperate address to the Friar asserts her willingness to die by ‘this bloody knife’ (line 63), if that’s what it takes ‘To live an unstained wife to my sweet love’ (line 90). Friar Lawrence responds with his plan to give Juliet a potion that will make her appear dead before she marries Paris.

In Act 4, scene 2, Juliet’s apology and apparent capitulation to her father’s commands has the unlucky outcome of moving her planned wedding to Paris forward. Instead of on Thursday, it will now take place on Wednesday.  Scene 3 is the focal scene of Act 4, summed up in a frequently quoted line: conquering her impulse to call the Nurse back for company, Juliet realises: ‘My dismal scene I needs must act alone’ (line 20). She explores a list of fearful possible outcomes from taking the Friar’s draft but realises that life has brought her to her personal omega,[5] the point of no return reached by all living beings. At the end of the scene, Juliet drinks the potion and collapses on her bed behind the curtains that conceal the Elizabethan theatre’s inner stage.

The remainder of Act 4, scenes 4 and 5, dramatises the aftermaths of Juliet’s actions for the Nurse, Capulet, Lady Capulet, Paris, and the Capulet household. The happy bustle and playfulness of the wedding preparations in scene 4 take place in front of the concealed space where the audience knows Juliet’s body lies. The contrast climaxes in the Nurse’s speech (lines 1-19) when she draws the curtain at the beginning of scene 5. Her responses move quickly through affection, playfulness, motherliness, and bawdy sexuality to horror when she approaches to where can see what seems to be the truth: ‘Alas, alas, help, help! My lady’s dead!’ (line 14). Friar Lawrence offers consolation to Juliet’s parents: you hoped to advance your daughter’s status by an advantageous marriage; now she is ‘advanced above the clouds, as high as heaven itself’ (lines 71-80):

For though fond nature bids us all lament,
Yet nature’s tears are reason’s merriment. (lines 88-89)

To the Capulets (as likewise to the audience) this seems like doubtful consolation. However, Lawrence’s couplet closing the scene proposes a moral condemnation of the Capulets with which some audience members will concur:

The heavens do lour upon you for some ill:
Move them no more by crossing their high will. (lines 100-101)

The sequence that follows, between Peter and the three Musicians, is often left out of modern performances. However it is present in both the First and Second Quartos of Romeo and Juliet, and there is strong evidence that Will Kempe, the comedian of Shakespeare’s company, was the first performer of Peter. A comic argument threatening violence, the scene raises an issue central to categorising the play, namely its varying moods.

Far from being a play of unrelieved sorrow, Romeo and Juliet blends tragedy with verbal and physical comedy, with exciting physical action, and with risk and uncertainty. Readers and audiences may decide that Shakespeare chose rightly when he ignored Aristotle’s law that a play should conform to unity of action.[6] How closely does Romeo and Juliet adhere to Aristotle’s other two prescriptions – unity of place and unity of time?

Act Five: Loss, Loss, and Loss…

The three scenes of Act 5 dramatise the tragic deaths of Romeo and Juliet. In contrast with Act 4, there are no digressions and no cheerful reprieves.

Figure 24. Romeo and Juliet, the ‘thombscene’ c. 1880 by Lucy Madox Brown (1843-1894). Public domain


In Act 5, scene 1, Wednesday afternoon in Mantua, Romeo relates a dream that has uplifted his spirits (lines 1-12), but immediately afterwards, in a shocking change of mood, Balthazar, Romeo’s man, who has attended Juliet’s funeral in Verona, arrives with the (false) news of her death (lines 18-24).

Explore the Text

Committed to Christian belief, Elizabethans officially regarded death as the gateway to a heaven of eternal joy for those whose sins had been redeemed.
• How far does this sequence (Romeo’s dream and Balthazar’s news) subscribe to this belief?
• Alternatively, how far does the sequence enact the ambiguity of death?

Romeo responds to Balthazar’s report with a portentous promise: ‘Well, Juliet. I will lie with thee tonight’ (line 37). The double entendre—lie in love-making and lie in death—radically adapts a technique that earlier in the play has been a source of humour.

In the short, powerful scene following (lines 60-91), Romeo purchases poison from an Apothecary. In performance, the scene deepens the sense of loss by contrasting Romeo’s youthful beauty with the Apothecary’s poverty-stricken ugliness. The brevity of youth, beauty and love is a central theme of Romeo and Juliet as it is of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In persuading the Apothecary to part with his poison, Romeo describes two ills of human existence. Poverty is the first. The second is gold (money), ‘worse poison to men’s souls.’ Romeo states that gold does more harm than the drugs the Apothecary sells.

Figure 25. Romeo and the Apothecary (early 19th century) by J. Coghlan.  Watercolour. Public domain

‘Unhappy fortune!’ (line 17): in Act 5, scene 2, back in Verona on Wednesday evening, Friar Lawrence discovers that his letter of vital warning has not reached Romeo in Mantua. Friar John was held in quarantine for an ‘infectious pestilence’ and so was unable to deliver the letter.

In the last scene of Act 5 all the surviving central characters, supported by Paris’s page, Balthazar, three Watchmen (security guards) and Attendants, converge on Juliet’s tomb. The scene opens late on Wednesday evening and closes on Thursday as dawn is breaking. The graveyard setting, raising life’s deepest mystery, is symbolic, and there is more than a touch of the ‘Gothic,’ a genre that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers extended.

Paris and Romeo arrive separately and with different intentions. Paris comes to strew Juliet’s grave with flowers, a ritual that he intends to continue ‘nightly’ into the future (line 17). Romeo aims to break into the Capulet sepulchre to join Juliet in death. Viewing Romeo as Tybalt’s murderer, and the indirect cause of Juliet’s suicide, Paris attacks Romeo. In the sword fight that follows Romeo kills Paris. Removing Paris’ face covering, Romeo identifies Juliet’s prospective bridegroom—‘One writ with me in sour misfortune’s book’ (line 82)—and he drags the body into Juliet’s tomb:  ‘I’ll bury thee in a triumphant grave’ (line 83).

Explore the Text

Romeo kills two young men in the course of Shakespeare’s play.

  1. Who are they?
  2. In your view, how much at fault is Romeo for each of these deaths?

In Shakespeare’s theatre, the tomb was again presumably the inner stage, used in Act Four as Juliet’s bedroom. When, dragging Paris’ body, Romeo draws aside the stage’s curtain, the ‘grave’ in his eyes transforms miraculously into a ‘lantern.’

For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes
This vault a feasting presence full of light. (Act 5, scene 3, lines 85-86)

Juliet’s and Tybalt’s bodies lie on biers, exposed to the audience’s view. Romeo places Paris’ body at the foot of Juliet’s bier: ‘Death, lie thou there by a dead man interred’ (line 87). After addressing Tybalt’s corpse and embracing Juliet, he drinks the Apothecary’s poison as a toast to Juliet and dies. Romeo’s death speech is adorned with metaphor and personification.

Explore the Text

Find the following metaphors in Romeo’s death speech (lines 88-120):

  • honey
  • battle flags
  • palace
  • chambermaids
  • seamen
  • ships.

Find the following personifications:

  • beauty
  • death
  • parts of Romeo’s body.

Guided by Balthazar, Friar Lawrence is the third character to arrive at the tomb, which he does only moments before Juliet’s awakening. Formerly brave, he flees when he hears the Watch approaching.

In the monument belong to the capulets, Friar Laurence flees. Romeo and Paris lie dead
Figure 26. Romeo and Juliet: actus V scaena 3 by James Northcote (1746-1836) Public domain

Left alone for less than a minute, Juliet tests Romeo’s cup and lips for remaining poison. Finding none, she stabs herself with Romeo’s dagger.

‘Act 5, Scene 3’ by Royal Shakespeare Company [6:52 mins]:

The last section of Act 5, scene 3 brings on stage Prince Escalus, Capulet, Lady Capulet, Montague and their attendants. All are panicking and asking questions like a chorus in a Greek tragedy. As an aside, Montague reports that his wife has died of grief over Romeo’s banishment.[7] Arrested by the Watch, Friar Lawrence then recapitulates all the events of the plot (lines 240-278). Balthazar and the page bear witness to Romeo’s and Paris’s actions outside the tomb.

Finally, Prince Escalus states the moral: that the enmity of their elders has caused the deaths of most members of the younger generation:

And I, for winking at your discords too,
Have lost a brace[8] of kinsmen. All are punished. (lines 304-305).

Explore the Text

Who are the two relations that Prince Escalus has ‘lost?’

Explore the Text

The play ends with a handshake between Capulet and Montague.

Together they will erect golden statues in memory of their lost children. Given what we have learned about gold from Romeo’s talk with the Apothecary, what real value are these expensive memorials likely to have?

Act 5 of Romeo and Juliet enacts erotic love’s intensity and joy, transcending reason. Conversely, it demonstrates the deadly consequences of long-lasting hatred. Now fully unfolded, the plot has revealed no reason for the Capulets’ and Montagues’ ‘ancient grudge,’ nor for its eruption into ‘new mutiny’. (Prologue line 3). Shakespeare’s play embodies numerous tragic ironies; it raises unanswerable questions about the goodness of human life and a God supposed to rule it with love.

Yet Romeo and Juliet’s brief encounter displays a depth of spirituality that leaves room for hope.

  1. A masque of Hymen (god of marriage) concludes Shakespeare’s As You Like It
  2. See this book's introduction, 'Beyond the Bard'
  3. proverbs, adages, maximes—sayings that capture something wise
  4. phrases in which the surface meaning conceals a hidden opposite meaning
  5. omega is the final letter in the Greek alphabet, and represents the end of everything
  6. learn more about Aristotle's unities here
  7. Was the company’s boy actor needed to play Paris’s page?
  8. "a brace" means "a pair" - two of something


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Shakespeare's Major Plays Copyright © 2024 by Cheryl Taylor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.