Teach me how I should forget to think.
Act 1, Scene 1
Romeo is the only son of Lord and Lady Montague. Today, the name ‘Romeo’ is synonymous with love and lovers. Romeo’s passionate nature drives his actions, and it is the overwhelming power of Romeo’s love that clouds his character, making him far more complex than his peers. His intensity of emotion is reflected in his conviction and extreme actions throughout the play. Love compels him to sneak into the Capulet garden to see Juliet, rage compels him to fight and to kill, and despair compels him to end his life.
Romeo is a lover of women, a lover of poetry, and a lover of the concept of love itself. However, he also philosophically struggles with love at the start of play, and the pain it causes him. He is not present at the opening fight between the Montagues and Capulets in Act 1, and when informed of it he shows disapproval of the long-standing feud and even suggests that there is a fine line between love and hate, “Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love… O brawling love, O loving hate…” (Act 1, Scene 1).
At the beginning of the play Romeo exudes a “black and portentous” humour. His father, Lord Montague, tells us that Romeo shuts himself away from other people and the world:
Away from the light steals home my heavy son,
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks far daylight out
And makes himself an artificial night...
Lord Montague, Act 1, Scene 1
Lord Montague implores Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin, to find out the reason for his son’s behaviour. After a brief interrogation, Romeo reveals to Benvolio that he is pining for Rosaline, a woman who by all reports does not return his affections. Despite the fact that his feelings for Rosaline are unrequited, Romeo is consumed by his feelings for her. Romeo even goes as far to say that he is not behaving as himself: “Tut, I have lost myself; I am not here;
This is not Romeo, he's some other where.” (Act 1, Scene 1) Romeo’s language when he speaks about Rosaline is romantic yet inexperienced and somewhat artificial: “Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs; / Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes...” (Act 1, Scene 1)
Romeo’s love for Rosaline disappears the instant he sees Juliet, and he can’t help but express the immensity of his newfound feelings in ardent poetry, “Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.” (Act 1, Scene 5) When Romeo and Juliet speak their first lines to one another, their words form a perfect Shakespearean sonnet using intricate religious metaphors – a far cry from his language with Rosaline. After meeting Juliet, it seems instant that Romeo knows he has found truth in love, that he has found his match, and his words echo this new depth of feeling. When Romeo enters enemy territory to visit Juliet at her window, he is driven by the intensity of his feelings for Juliet and cares little for the danger he is in. In fact, when Juliet points out that he will be killed if he is found in the grounds, Romeo replies: “I have night's cloak to hide me from their sight; / And but thou love me, let them find me here...” (Act 2, Scene 2)
Romeo has a group of friends, namely his cousin Benvolio, and a genuine affection for the lively Mercutio, yet Romeo keeps his friends unaware of his relationship with Juliet. Romeo’s friends are incredibly important to him, so much so that when Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo is so enraged that he kills Tybalt in revenge. In this moment, Romeo’s passion takes over and he does not consider the repercussions of his actions.
Romeo’s closest confidante is Friar Lawrence who acts as his guide and mentor and is much more present in Romeo’s life than his own parents. It is the Friar who Romeo visits straight after meeting Juliet, asking him to marry them later that day. Romeo relies on the Friar’s trusted guidance throughout the play, until the final act when he takes life, and death, into his own hands.
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet...
Act 2, Scene 2
Juliet is the only child of Lord and Lady Capulet. She has led a sheltered life as the daughter of the wealthy Capulet family, and is fairly naive to the outside world. At just thirteen years old, Juliet already has great expectations placed on her, and it is expected that she will soon marry. When we first meet her, Juliet is told by her mother that girls of her age must marry, as Lady Capulet did herself:
Here in Verona, ladies of esteem,
Are made already mothers: by my count,
I was your mother much upon these years
That you are now a maid.
Lady Capulet, Act 1, Scene 3
When asked what she thinks of the concept of marriage, Juliet responds to her mother “It is an honour that I dream not of.” (Act 1, Scene 3) Her father Capulet has decided that Paris, an eligible young bachelor and a relative of the Prince, should woo Juliet and be her husband. Yet while Juliet is unsure of the idea of marriage, she agrees to meet Paris at the Capulet ball and consent to her parents’ wishes:
I'll look to like, if looking liking move:
But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.
Act 1, Scene 3
However, at the Capulet ball when Juliet spies Romeo she feels instantly attracted to him and there is a mutual connection between them. After just 14 lines spoken to each other, Juliet and Romeo share a kiss to which Juliet replies “You kiss by the book.” (Act 1, Scene 5) She appears to have almost instantly shifted from a young child following her parents’ orders, to a passionate young girl following her heart and own instincts. While she does not immediately know the identity of Romeo, she is compelled to find out asking the Nurse “Go ask his name: if he be married, / My grave is like to be my wedding bed.” (Act 1, Scene 5) In a matter of hours, Juliet has shifted from someone who had never considered marriage before, to someone who actively pursues a love interest.
When Romeo breaks into the Capulet grounds to visit Juliet after the party, she is happy to see him yet fearful that Romeo will be found and killed. Juliet is all too aware of the ‘proper’ way a young woman should behave towards a potential suitor, yet finds herself wanting to share declarations of love to Romeo straight away. She makes sure that she tells Romeo that despite any outward behaviours, she is true and earnest in her feelings for him:
In truth, fair Montague, I am too fond,
And therefore thou mayst think my 'havior light:
But trust me, gentleman, I'll prove more true
Than those that have more cunning to be strange.
I should have been more strange, I must confess...
Act 2, Scene 2
She challenges Romeo to assure her of his feelings and even insists that he be careful in his language of love: “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, / That monthly changes in her circled orb, / Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.” (Act 2, Scene 2) For someone inexperienced in love, Juliet seems confident and commanding in this romantic exchange. In fact, once Romeo and Juliet are assured of their true feelings for one another, it is Juliet who first raises the idea of marriage and drives the swift planning of the event.
Unlike Romeo, Juliet has no friends of her own age. She is isolated and sheltered within the world of the Capulets. In the few days between meeting Romeo and her death, Juliet is transformed from child to woman. She questions the fickle nature of the Montague and Capulet feud, perhaps for the first time, and cannot understand why she cannot love someone simply because of a name. Her secret marriage to Romeo forces her already distant relationship with her parents to worsen, and her independence begins to grow as a result.
Juliet’s closest friend and companion is the Nurse who has cared for her since birth. The Nurse acts as confidante and is aware of Juliet and Romeo’s secret relationship. Juliet even sends the Nurse to consult Romeo in the organising of their wedding. As an employee of the Capulet household, this is a dangerous act for the Nurse, and shows her true devotion to Juliet. However, as the plot unfolds, the Nurse comes to the conclusion that Juliet and Romeo’s relationship is too fraught and not worth continuing. She counsels Juliet to marry Paris instead and forget Romeo. Feeling deserted by her close friend, Juliet decides to sever her ties with the Nurse. Juliet shows immense strength in response to her predicament and even manages to curse her lost bond with the Nurse, “Ancient damnation, O most wicked fiend…” (Act 3, Scene 5)
Juliet shows great courage and bravely stands up to her father and mother when they arrange her immediate marriage to Paris, after Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment: “Now, by Saint Peter's Church and Peter too, / He shall not make me there a joyful bride.” (Act 3, Scene 5) She pleads with Lord Capulet to “Hear me with patience but to speak a word” but he abandons her in anger, saying she must marry Paris or be disowned. At this point, Juliet has no one left to turn to within her own family and household, so seeks counsel from the Friar. She shows her desperation and strength of her convictions when she insists to Friar Lawrence: “Be not so long to speak; I long to die...” (Act 4, Scene 1)
Juliet shows great maturity in her new relationship with Romeo. She is able to criticise Romeo’s actions and decisions, while being profoundly in love with him. She keeps her wits about her and does not blindly follow Romeo after he kills Tybalt. She demonstrates immense courage, strength and willpower in her choices and actions. Juliet releases herself from her parents’ command by following the Friar’s plan, which will reunite her with Romeo in the Capulet tomb. Waking to find Romeo’s dead body, Juliet chooses to take her own life, not out of loss and weakness, but out of intense love for Romeo.
Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.
Act 2, Scene 4
Friar Lawrence is the main religious figure in the play and a close friend and mentor to Romeo. Romeo is able to confide in him in a way that he cannot with his friends, and only tells the Friar about his love for Juliet. The Friar is at first shocked by Romeo’s swift change of heart:
Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? young men's love then lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.
Act 2, Scene 3
However, listening to Romeo’s insistence that his new love is far stronger than any feelings he had for Rosaline, the Friar also has a quick change of heart and agrees to marry the young lovers. This act may seem careless, but it is the most political manoeuvre in the play and is born from honourable intentions. The Friar hopes that Romeo and Juliet’s union may bring peace between the Montagues and Capulets. While his actions are not always well thought through, they are well-intentioned. The Friar, as with the Nurse, seems to side with the young lovers and treat them as young adults, rather than idealistic children.
The Friar has an intimate knowledge of plants and their medicinal powers, and is well aware of the two opposites residing within nature – the power to heal and the power to kill. In this way, he symbolises the volatile knife-edge of love and hate, and the relationship between the Montagues and the Capulets.
Friar Lawrence is crucial to the action of the play in many respects. He creates the herbal sleeping potion that is crucial to Romeo and Juliet’s plan. He shows compassion in his willingness to support the young lovers, in both marrying them and assisting with their escape. The Friar also provides counsel to Juliet when she is deserted by the Nurse. When Romeo is banished, he creates an elaborate plan for the young lovers to be reunited and escape Verona to begin a new life together.
However the Friar's intricate plan goes awry and he is thwarted in his attempts to remedy the situation. In the final scene, Friar Lawrence shows some cowardice as he flees the tomb without Juliet, yet he does return to explain everything to Romeo and Juliet’s bereft parents, admitting his own part in the tragic story.
Prick love for pricking and you beat love down.
Act 1, Scene 4
Mercutio is Romeo’s quick-witted friend and a relation of Prince Escalus. He is considered one of the most lyrical and fascinating characters in Shakespeare’s canon. As in the word ‘mercurial’, Mercutio is swift to shift in mood and temperament, and seems comfortable swinging between comic hijinks to friendly tussles to intense expositions on love to deathly sword fights.
He first appears in the play with Romeo in Act 1, Scene 4 where he mocks his lovelorn friend. Mercutio jokes frequently but is by no means a light character, as the complexity of his language, however crude, is socially perceptive and functions on many levels. He cares deeply for Romeo and constantly tries to free him from the bounds of romantic love. Mercutio’s death at the hands of Tybalt enrages a formerly peaceful Romeo. Mercutio jokes and entertains his friends (and the audience) until his final moments, playing the joker to the end. However, just before Mercutio dies, he turns to Romeo and his friends and curses the feuding families. Many critics say that Shakespeare almost had to kill Mercutio half way through the story, otherwise his vibrant flair and distrust in love would have dominated the story. Mercutio’s death is the key catalyst for Romeo’s downfall, and a major narrative turning point for the story.
What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word
As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.
Act 1, Scene 1
Tybalt is Juliet’s cousin and the beloved, hot-headed nephew of the Capulet family. He is fiercely loyal to the Capulets, and referred to as the ‘Prince of Cats.’ He despises the Montagues, and his comments reflect a blind hatred, giving the audience no insight into the origin of the Capulet and Montague feud. Tybalt is clear in his intentions and even despises the concept of ‘peace’.
Tybalt is renowned for being a skilled fighter, always willing for a fight, and long to hold a grudge. Much is noted of Tybalt in regards to his temper – characters refer to him as “fiery” and his actions are always driven by his passion and anger. Tybalt’s skills are acknowledged by Mercutio in Act 2, Scene 4:
...He fights as
you sing prick-song, keeps time, distance, and
proportion; rests me his minim rest, one, two, and
the third in your bosom: the very butcher of a silk
button, a duellist, a duellist...
From Tybalt’s own lines, we know he is always ready and willing to fight, confident in his ability, and aware of the consequences: “Turn thee, Benvolio, look upon thy death.” (Act 1, Scene 1)
When Tybalt spies Romeo at the Capulet ball, he is incensed and seeks to fight Romeo right then and there. When Lord Capulet forbids any fighting during the party, Tybalt is outraged:
It fits, when such a villain is a guest:
I'll not endure him.
Act 1, Scene 5
When Lord Capulet insists he leave Romeo alone, Tybalt swears revenge and we know he is to be believed. Tybalt seeks Romeo out in a street brawl, yet when Mercutio intervenes, Tybalt kills him and is, in turn, killed by Romeo. Tybalt’s death is mourned heavily by the Capulet family, particularly Lady Capulet and Juliet’s Nurse.
...'tis not hard, I think,
For men so old as we to keep the peace.
Act 1, Scene 2
Lord Capulet is Juliet’s father and the head of the household. He has long been feuding with Lord Montague, Romeo’s father, but there is no suggestion in Shakespeare’s script as to the grounds for the feud. The Prince states it was ‘bred of an airy word’ (Act 1, Scene 1).
Capulet appears to truly love his daughter and states that she is “the hopeful lady of my earth” (Act 1, Scene 2). Initially when speaking with Paris, Capulet insists she is not yet ready for marriage:
My child is yet a stranger in the world;
She hath not seen the change of fourteen years,
Let two more summers wither in their pride,
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.
Act 1, Scene 2
Yet the events of the play cause Capulet to swiftly change his mind and assert his rule over his family. Being his only child , Capulet believes he knows what is best for Juliet and will not hesitate to enforce it.
Capulet is the head of his household in a patriarchal society, and so is able to command everyone around him to do as he says, from servants to his own wife and family. He expects and commands respect, displayed when he reprimands Tybalt: “I’ll make you quiet!” (Act 1, Scene 5) Capulet does however display some restrain, such as when he forbids Tybalt from “making a mutiny among my guests” (Act 1, Scene 5) when Romeo crashes their ball.
Lord Capulet is prone to extreme outbursts and rage when his orders are not followed. This is most apparent when Juliet refuses to marry Paris, where we see him pushed to his limits. His response is brutal in its threatening nature to his child:
Graze where you will you shall not house with me:
Look to't, think on't, I do not use to jest.
Thursday is near; lay hand on heart, advise:
An you be mine, I'll give you to my friend;
And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in
For, by my soul, I'll ne'er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good:
Trust to't, bethink you; I'll not be forsworn.
Act 3, Scene 5
At the end of the play, having realised the extent of his loss, Lord Capulet is remorseful and makes his peace with Lord Montague, “O brother Montague, give me thy hand” (Act 5, Scene 3). We see more of the Capulet parents than the Montague parents during the course of the play.
I was your mother much upon these years
That you are now a maid.
Act 1, Scene 3
Lady Capulet is Capulet’s wife and Juliet’s mother. She reveals that she was married at an even younger age than Juliet: ‘By my count,/ I was your mother much upon these years/ That you are now a maid’. (Act 1, Scene 3). Lady Capulet is a somewhat distant mother to Juliet, leaving the maternal connection and child-rearing to Juliet’s Nurse. Lady Capulet also wants the best for her only child, and genuinely believes Juliet’s marriage to Paris to be a great opportunity. She is surprised when Juliet does not share her views, and shocked when her child refuses to follow orders as is expected of her. When Juliet refuses to marry Paris, Lady Capulet passes her over to Lord Capulet for punishment:
Here comes your father; tell him so yourself,
And see how he will take it at your hands.
Act 3, Scene 5
Lady Capulet is a traditional model for the social role of women in high society Verona, playing the compliant wife, and expecting her daughter to do the same. When Juliet refuses to marry Paris, Lady Capulet abandons her daughter saying “Do what thou wilt, for I have done with thee.” (Act 3, Scene 5) We see at many points throughout the play that her relationship with her husband is somewhat strained, certainly not the model of mutual love and passion displayed in her daughter’s relationship with Romeo.
Go girl, seek happy nights to happy days.
Act 1, Scene 2
The Nurse is Juliet’s closest friend and confidante. She has known Juliet since birth, being her wet nurse as a baby and then primary caregiver, which was custom for children of noble birth and wealth. In this way, the Nurse knows Juliet far more intimately than her own parents do.
The Nurse is an affable, loving woman who is a devoted, long-time employee of the Capulet household. She talks a little too much for Lady and Lord Capulet’s liking, and is often told to be quiet. The Nurse tells us that she had a husband and a daughter who have both died, which may lend reason to her bond with Juliet and service to the Capulet family. Juliet often makes mention of the Nurse’s age in comparison to her own youth, particularly when frustrated at the amount of time it takes the Nurse to send messages for her to Romeo.
The Nurse is the only member of the household who is complicit in her relationship with Romeo. While initially very excited at the idea of Paris as a match for Juliet – “Why, he’s a man of wax!” (Act 1, Scene 3) – the Nurse goes to great lengths to help organise Juliet’s secret union with Romeo, defying the Capulet family. After Romeo kills Tybalt, the Nurse even visits the Friar’s cell to insist Romeo pull himself together and go to Juliet: “Stand up, stand up; stand, and you be a man: / For Juliet's sake, for her sake, rise and stand...” (Act 3, Scene 3)
However, when Romeo is banished and Juliet’s parents insist she marry Paris, the Nurse switches sides and agrees with the Capulets. No longer believing that Romeo and Juliet’s relationship is viable, she withdraws her original support and advises Juliet to listen to her parents and marry Paris:
Then, since the case so stands as now it doth,
I think it best you married with the county.
O, he's a lovely gentleman!
Romeo's a dishclout to him: an eagle, madam,
Hath not so green, so quick, so fair an eye
As Paris hath. Beshrew my very heart,
I think you are happy in this second match,
For it excels your first: or if it did not,
Your first is dead; or 'twere as good he were,
As living here and you no use of him.
Act 3, Scene 5
In doing this, as she has done her whole life, the Nurse believes she is acting in Juliet’s best interests and ensuring her a stable, good life. However, Juliet feels completely betrayed by the Nurse in this moment, and her words signal the end to their close relationship, unbeknownst to the Nurse.
I do but keep the peace.
Act 1, Scene 1
Benvolio is Montague’s nephew and Romeo’s cousin and friend. The name Benvolio derives from the Latin root meaning benevolent, good and charitable. He is a thoughtful character who tries to keep the peace between the Montagues and the Capulets. Benvolio tries several times in the play to defuse violent scenes in public places: “I drew to part them” (Act 1, Scene 1). Benvolio is instrumental in getting Romeo to forget Rosaline and “examine other beauties”, saying “Be ruled by me. Forget to think of her.” (Act 1, Scene 1) not realising this will lead Romeo to meet and fall in love with Juliet. Despite being so close to his cousin, Benvolio is none the wiser about Romeo’s romance with Juliet. Mercutio does accuse Benvolio of having a nasty temper when in private, however this may be joking and mockery. Benvolio is one of the only young characters who survives the events of the play.
...all are punished.
Act 5, Scene 3
As the Prince of Verona, Escalus holds the position of political power and is therefore concerned with maintaining public peace and order at all costs. It is clear that governing a city with two constantly warring families is not an easy feat, and when we meet the Prince in Act 1, he is furious at the ongoing violence calling the populace, “Rebellious subjects, enemies to peace,” (Act 1, Scene 1). Giving insight into the feud and the lengths he is willing to go to to enforce law and order, he says:
On pain of torture, from those bloody hands
Throw your mistemper'd weapons to the ground,
And hear the sentence of your moved prince.
Act 1, Scene 2
Later, he even goes as far to say “on pain of death, all men depart”, foreshadowing that people will lose their lives if the feud continues.
Prince Escalus instructs Lord Capulet and Montague to speak with him individually about the ongoing feud and they appear to follow orders, however the Prince does not seem to have much sway over the household’s children and their constant brawling.
He banishes Romeo for killing Tybalt and then is seen again at the end of the play, delivering the final lines: ‘For never was a story of more woe/ Than this of Juliet and her Romeo’. (Act 5, Scene 3) Prince Escalus is also related to Mercutio, and so expresses that the Montague and Capulet feud has affected him personally after Mercutio’s death – “And I, for winking at your discords, too have lost a brace of kinsmen.”
Younger than she are happy mothers made.
Act 1, Scene 2
Paris is an eligible bachelor in Verona, and the man Capulet and Lady Capulet would like Juliet to marry. He is young, wealthy, handsome, of noble stature in society, and also a kinsman to Prince Escalus. Paris is disheartened when Capulet initially tells him that Juliet is too young to marry, yet honours Capulet’s decision. After Tybalt’s death, Paris is overjoyed to hear that Capulet has changed his mind and has arranged Juliet’s immediate marriage to him. He becomes quite presumptuous in his manner after Capulet has promised that Juliet will be his wife. He refers to Capulet as ‘father’: “My father Capulet will have it so” (Act 4, Scene 1) and greets Juliet as “my lady and my wife!” (Act 4, Scene 1) Paris visits Juliet in the Capulet tomb in Act 5, Scene 3 where he encounters Romeo. Paris is enraged to see a Montague at the Capulet tomb and fights Romeo. Paris is killed, saying to Romeo “If thou be merciful, open the tomb. Lay me with Juliet.” (Act 5, Scene 3)