The notes were prepared for use with an edition of Romeo and Juliet bound together with the book for West Side Story and in conjunction with a showing of Franco Zeffirelli’s film version of the play, but they will be useful with any edition or production.

The introduction focuses primarily on comparisons with West Side Story, so it has relatively little to say about the play as such. As noted, this is often regarded as a lesser Shakespeare tragedy by scholars, but what should also be kept in mind is that audiences have made it one of the most beloved plays of all time from the Elizabethan Age to the present. Romeo and Juliet are often considered the archetypal lovers, and at one time “a romeo”–meaning a lover–was a common noun. Several operas and ballets have been based on the story. The play also contains some of Shakespeare’s most-quoted lines, and some of the most beautiful.

Although Shakespeare’s dialogue often reads beautifully enough on the page, please keep in mind that he never intended his words to be read. This is a script for performance, and our study of it will prepare us for a version of the real thing: the film version directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Like all productions, it is an interpretation, leaving some things out, putting others in, placing emphases differently than other productions. Your goal in this assignment should be to familiarize (or refamiliarize) yourself with exactly what Shakespeare wrote so that you can observe what it is Zeffirelli has done with it.

Shakespeare wrote almost no original plots. He used an English poetic retelling of an old Italian tale: Arthur Brooke’s The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet. Despite its Italian setting, the language, attitudes, and customs are generally English. In one respect, Shakespeare altered the story in a way which is shocking to modern audiences: he lowered Juliet’s age from sixteen to just under fourteen. There are several reasons he might have done so. Boys played the female roles in Shakespeare’s theater, and they might have been more convincing as young girls than as more mature women (though audiences presumably found a boy playing Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth satisfactory). Shakespeare emphasizes the over-hastiness and premature nature of this love affair and probably felt he was underlining this theme at a time when marriage at fifteen was considered by no means shocking, though marriage at eighteen or twenty was in fact much more common. Shakespeare was notoriously inept at depicting children in his plays and he may not have had a really clear idea of what a fourteen-year-old girl would be like. Finally, the fact that the story is Italian may have fitted in with Northern European prejudices about hot-blooded early-maturing Southerners. However we imagine her, Juliet is given some of the most brilliant and memorable lines in the play, and is notable for her courage and wit.

Italian cities were infamous for their long-lasting, deadly feuds between prominent families. Elizabeth, like most absolute monarchs, abhorred dueling and feuding and tried to suppress it. Shakespeare’s play is in part his contribution to her “just say no” campaign against such conflicts.


Modern taste prefers not to be told right at the beginning of a play how it will end; but many in Shakespeare’s audience already knew the story and were looking to enjoy how well it was told, not seeking to be surprised by original plot turns.

Act I: Scene 1

The Elizabethans delighted in word-play, especially puns. Much of this seems labored and dull to modern readers, but imagine it as a game in which actors are flinging out their lines at a smart pace with the audience scrambling to follow and untangle the word-play in a sort of contest between playwright and audience. The slow delivery and heavy emphasis which many modern actors bring to these lines is utterly alien to their original spirit. This early scene between the servants of the Capulets and Montagues illustrates the foolishness of the quarrel between the two families.

The sexual punning begins in ll. 25-35 and continues throughout the play. The love of Romeo and Juliet, although idealized, is rooted in passionate sexuality. The Victorian ideal of “pure,” non-sexual romantic love has not yet evolved. In this play there are crude allusions to sex and exalted ones, but the erotic is never very far under the surface.

“Benvolio” means “good will,” and he is obviously more congenial (or “benevolent”) than the irascible Tybalt. Note how Lady Capulet mocks her husband’s eagerness to join the combat at l. 83 and Lady Montague similarly tries to hold her husband back. Although Zeffirelli does not use these lines, he does build upon the attitudes hinted at in a few spots to create tension between the Capulets. Elizabethan audiences loved elaborate sword-play, and a stage direction like they fight conveys little of what might have been very prolonged and complex stage action. Why do you suppose the Prince is so strongly opposed to this sort of feuding?

Montague’s description of Romeo’s melancholy fits exactly contemporary ideas of lovesickness. Thus far, Shakespeare is following tradition. His original contribution will come in contrasting Romeo’s mooning over Rosaline with the fresh, spontaneous passion which Juliet will inspire in him. It is much more difficult for modern audiences to detect the contrast between these two moods, but it is important to be aware that Shakespeare intends a contrast, and a sharp one. The many oxymorons in Romeo’s speech are clichés, meant to evoke his callow, stereotypical attitude toward love. The sexual metaphor at l. 193 is a good example of how far Shakespeare will go to insert erotic allusions into the most unlikely places. The theme (ll. 234-236) that it is a shame for a beautiful young person not to reproduce is worked out at great length in the famous and controversial “procreation sonnets.” What are the most extreme and extravagant things that Romeo has to say about Rosaline?

Act I: Scene 2

Note that Capulet is perfectly aware of what modern medicine has confirmed: early teenage pregnancies are dangerous to the mother. This fact may have been somewhat obscured in Shakespeare’s time by the fact that a great many women of more mature ages died in childbirth; in fact, this may have been the main cause of death in women. The fact that all of Capulet’s other children have died is also a sad reminder of the extremely high infant mortality rates of the day. As we shall see, Juliet’s own mother gave birth at this age, and is therefore now less than thirty, though she thinks of herself as old (her husband is much older). Life was short and people aged rapidly then, facts which make the urgency expressed in this play more understandable. What image in Capulet’s speech to Paris suggests the delight that older men such as they feel in observing attractive young girls? In Elizabethan society, the insane were often imprisoned, chained and beaten in hopes of driving out the devils that possessed them (ll. 55-57), notoriously at London’s Bethlehem Hospital (shortened familiarly to “Bedlam”) where people often went to observe and laugh at the antics of the insane. Inmates could even be rented as entertainment for parties, so there is a consistent connection made between “madness” and humor. What is Benvolio’s motivation in encouraging Romeo to crash the Capulets’ party?

Act I: Scene 3

The nurse is one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. The bawdy old lady who revels in sex and sympathizes with young lovers is an old stereotype, dating back at least to the Middle Ages. In many tales, she is a professional bawd, a go-between who facilitates the illicit meetings of young lovers, sells love potions, surgically repairs maidenheads, and provides young brides with the means of faking virginity on their wedding night. Though she is no professional, the character of the nurse would have been a recognizable type to Shakespeare’s audience. Note that her very first words are about sex, referring to the fact that the last time she was a virgin she was twelve. The mixture of high tragedy and comedy, of noble characters and common ones like the nurse, is a distinguishing characteristic of Elizabethan drama, much objected to in the 17th and 18th centuries by classical critics. Such blendings were to be allowed in comedy, but not in tragedy. Today they satisfy our preference for life to be portrayed complexly, as a mixture of incongruities.

The first long speech by the nurse illustrates her propensity to run on and on in response to the simplest of questions. Susan (l. 18) is the child the nurse bore and lost the same year that Juliet was born. Nurses often nursed their charges literally. A woman who had lost her own baby was an ideal source of milk for an upper-class infant whose mother preferred not to be troubled with doing her own nursing. Babies were weaned by having a foul-tasting salve smeared on the nipple (l. 30). The bodily intimacy between Juliet and the nurse helps to explain the insistent physicality of the latter’s speeches. Zeffirelli leaves out some of the more obscure references, particularly those alluding to the earthquake. Today a man who would joke about a toddler’s future sexual attitudes would be viewed as distinctly weird, but in the Renaissance such a joke would have been commonplace, intended to connect the married couple with each other over the child’s head. The nurse’s late husband was not sexualizing the child, but reminding his wife how she differs from Juliet in her enthusiasm for sex.

Juliet’s reply to her mother at l. 66 is one of Shakespeare’s often-quoted lines, remarkable in its diplomacy for a young teenager. It is at ll. 71-73 that we learn that Lady Capulet cannot be older than 28. By what process does Lady Capulet seem to expect Juliet to come to love Paris? How is the imagery of her speech reflected in Juliet’s reply? Note that the nurse’s final line also suggests that the main joy of marriage is to be found in lovemaking.

Act I: Scene 4

Most of the opening exchange between Romeo and Mercutio is omitted in the film version. What is the consistent theme of Romeo’s speeches in it? The famous “Queen Mab” speech of Mercutio has been discussed endlessly. It has been criticized because of its seeming irrelevance and extraordinary length. Such criticisms inevitably lead to defenses which declare the speech to express the essence of the play. It certainly illustrates the “mercurial” Mercutio’s character: whimsical, impulsive, and satirical. It has also been a great influence on our modern image of fairies, who were physically indistinguishable from normal humans in most Medieval traditions, though Shakespeare’s fairies, like the older ones, are primarily mischief-makers. Zeffirelli, rather than cutting or omitting the speech as some directors have done, uses it to give an unusual interpretation to the character of Mercutio. See whether you can figure out what he is trying to achieve and how whether you think he has succeeded. What is the mood expressed in Romeo’s final speech?

Act I: Scene 5:

Note how Capulet urges the ladies on to dance even as he excuses himself. He would seem by the following conversation with “Second Capulet” to be in his fifties or sixties. Romeo bursts into some of Shakespeare’s finest poetry upon seeing Juliet for the first time. Men often married much later than women, when they had built sufficient fortunes to earn them a beautiful and noble wife. The modern reader may at first find his musings on Rosaline and his raptures over Juliet equally artificial; but the former are simply a flat recitation of clichés, whereas he makes commonplaces new by the richness of their expression. Paleness of skin was so prized at this time that women painted their skin with lead compounds that rendered them as white as clowns. With the growing importation of African slaves, many painters seized on the contrast between dark-skinned servants and their pale mistresses to “set off” European beauty. The contrast was undoubtedly racist, but based more on aesthetic preferences than racial hatred.

Look for a dark-haired woman meant to be Rosaline early in the film’s ball scene and note how Juliet comes into view. What about his initial praise of her foreshadows her early death? Romeo anticipates the line of approach he will take during the dance by saying that her touch will “bless” his hand. It is crucial to remember that it was universally believed at this time that true love always struck at first sight; love that grew gradually was no love at all. Take note of Capulet’s rebuke to Tybalt in ll. 79-90. Zeffirelli makes one of his most daring moves in his use of this speech. Watch for it. What effect does it have on the subsequent love scene to place this encounter with Tybalt just before it?

The speeches that follow are far too artificial for modern taste, but read sympathetically they are revealing and even moving. However, the religious imagery used by the pair should not deceive you into thinking that this is a pious or even solemn exchange. This is a quick-witted bout of flirtation in which both sides are equally smitten, as is made clear by what follows, but in which Juliet plays the proper young girl’s role of dissecting Romeo’s “lines” as fast as he can think them up. The religious language is more blasphemous than pious. The following modern rewording may convey (feebly) the meaning of the exchange more clearly so that you can go back and enjoy Shakespeare’s beautiful language as he intended it.

Romeo (holding her hand as they dance): “You are like a shrine enclosing a holy relic, and I would be unforgivably uncouth to touch it with my unworthy hand except that I am ready to “kiss away” the damage I have done.” (In other words: “I love holding your hand; may I kiss it?”)

Juliet (probably amused, but cautious, teases him): “There’s nothing wrong with your hand (I like it!), and handholding while we dance is quite legitimate; but you’re being a little too bold in wanting to kiss me. If you’re really a pilgrim, you should greet me only with your hand, as ‘palmers’ do.”

Romeo: “Hey, even holy pilgrims are human: they’ve got lips. Please let me kiss you.”

Juliet: “Pilgrims use their lips for praying, not kissing.”

Romeo: “Fine, so I’m praying to you to let me kiss you. If my prayer isn’t answered I may lose my religious faith.”

Juliet: “Well, if I were a statue of a saint you were praying to, I might just grant your prayer although I’d remain motionless.” (In other words, “I won’t kiss you; but yes, you can kiss me.”)

Romeo: “Stand still while I kiss you.” (He kisses her lips.) “Just as a pilgrim might kiss the statue of a saint in hopes of receiving forgiveness for sins, so your acceptance of my kiss undoes any sin I committed by holding your hand.”

Juliet (thrilled and amused at the same time): “So you claim to have gotten rid of your sin by kissing my lips. Now I’ve got the sin. What are you going to do about that?”

Romeo: “You want me to kiss you again? Great!” (Kisses her again.)

Juliet: “You don’t really need all this artificial argumentation to justify kissing me, you know. Let’s get serious.”

Who would you say is more in charge of the course of events here? Why?

Zeffirelli seems to give the word “chinks” in l. 118 a bawdy meaning even though scholars generally agree that the nurse is for a change speaking of Juliet’s wealth rather than her body. At l. 120, Romeo puts his predicament into bookkeeping language. As the notes say, Juliet is now his life; but more ominously, his continued existence is now in danger because her relatives may well kill him for courting her. Why do you think Juliet asks the nurse about several other people first before mentioning Romeo? Note the foreshadowing in ll. 136-137. The speech that begins on l. 140 is evidently muttered to herself, only half-heard by the nurse. In what sense could it be called a rhyme that she learned from Romeo?

Act II: Prologue

What is it that the Chorus says gives the couple the power to overcome the obstacles which separate them?

Act II: Scene 1

Why do Mercutio’s teasing speeches not bother Romeo? As the notes suggest, ll. 23-30 are a series of sexual puns comparing magic conjuration with sexual intercourse.

Act II: Scene 2

This is the famous “Balcony Scene,” one of the most renowned in all of Shakespeare. But because of its romantic associations it is often misunderstood. Romeo’s passion for Juliet is unambiguously erotic. To Elizabethans sexual desire was not antithetical to romance; it was the essence of romance. In calling for the triumph of the sun over the moon, Romeo is hoping she will not remain a virgin much longer. Women who prolonged their virginity excessively were thought to suffer from “green-sickness,” a malady which could only be cured by healthy lovemaking. Thus the entire opening to this scene is devoted to Romeo’s fevered desire that she will make love with him. Despite his passion, he is shy enough, and polite enough, not to simply burst in upon her. It is the tension between his overwhelming desire and his reticence that shows how much he truly loves her.

The comparison of a woman’s eyes to bright stars was a commonplace, but Shakespeare makes it new by elaborating it in a dazzling series of lines dwelling on the luminosity of Juliet’s beauty. In what way does he say her eyes are brighter than stars? Note the physically intimate image of ll. 24-25. Any poet could call his lady angelic; Shakespeare composes a mini-poem on the theme in ll. 26-32. Pay particular attention to the note on l. 33, which is consistently misinterpreted and even misquoted by people unfamiliar with Elizabethan usage. Note that it is Juliet who is thinking through the consequences of their love more systematically and practically than is Romeo. Does this make her less romantic than he? Explain your answer. Note that it is a series of coincidences which moves this affair along so quickly without Juliet being portrayed as shameless. How does Juliet’s speech at ll. 58-60 reveal both her love and her fear? Note that she almost immediately speaks of the death that threatens him. From the beginning their discourse is threaded with allusions to death. When he says he is in more danger of being slain by her eye, he is using conventional courtly language which goes back centuries. In l. 82 “pilot” is used in the original sense of one who expertly guides a ship through hazardous waters.

Juliet’s long speech starting at l. 85 makes clear that she is still a virtuous young woman who wishes her love had not been so promptly revealed; but now that it has been, she does not intend to look backward. Note how she alludes to Ovid’s famous statement that Jove laughs at the oaths of lovers. Much of the rest of her speech examines a paradox in traditional European attitudes toward love as they concerned women: a woman should fall instantly in love upon first seeing her beloved, but it was highly improper for her to reveal her feelings. Instead, she should insist on a prolonged courtship during which the lover would earn her love. Her rejection of this centuries-old stereotype is thrilling, but also highly dangerous. Note throughout the rest of the play the many references to haste. Haste obviously has its hazards; but what justification does Juliet have for acting quickly?

Just as Romeo had scorned the moon for its virginity, Juliet rejects it as too variable. Again Juliet allows herself to flirt with blasphemy in calling Romeo her god. Romeo’s statement at l. 125 is obviously startling to Juliet, but he quickly recovers by insisting that he will love her faithfully. Having once proclaimed her love, the font of Juliet’s eloquence is unstopped, and she becomes the dominant figure in the rest of the scene. A secret marriage involving an underage girl would certainly not have been valid in England, but Italy is a sort of fantasy-land to the Elizabethan audience: anything is possible. Like “by and by” “anon” meant “immediately;” but it was used so often by people trying to put off demands for immediate action that both expressions eventually came to mean “after a while.” Here it retains its original meaning. In l. 156, “want” means “lack.”

One of the most charming touches in this scene is Juliet being so overwhelmed by Romeo’s presence that she cannot remember why she called him back. The following exchange foreshadows their parallel debate before their parting at dawn the day after their wedding. The first two lines of Romeo’s final speech make clear that lovemaking is still very much on his mind. It is put most romantically, but the sense of his words is “I wish I were lying on top of you.” Zeffirelli picks up on these consistent references to sex to justify having his young lovers all over each other during the scene, spicing things up by dwelling on Olivia Hussey’s considerable cleavage. Despite the fact that no Elizabethan production would have been so physical, Zeffirelli is being true to the message that would have been conveyed by the words to the original audience. Remember that this young pair knows very little about each other except that they are extremely attractive and witty.

Act II: Scene 3

Friar Laurence is sometimes played as a bit of a fool; but Zeffirelli gives him a good bit of dignity. His speech on the healing and harmful properties of plants is another bit of foreshadowing. Just as healing herbs can kill, so love can also lead to death. Note also the image of death in a grave at ll. 83-84. What justification does Laurence offer for agreeing to this highly improper marriage?

Act II: Scene 4

Zeffirelli puts Mercutio’s speech beginning at l. 29 to more aggressive use in his film version. The film’s Mercutio makes the obscene meaning of ll. 95-96 unmistakable. When Mercutio suggests that the nurse is a bawd, he is alluding to the stereotype discussed above. In her speech beginning on l. 159, the nurse expresses her outrage at Mercutio in language intended to expresses her intention to thrash him; but she unintentionally uses a series of terms with double meanings which describe sex instead. So while her intended message is “I’ll beat any man who bothers me” what the audience hears is “I’ll have sex with any man that approaches me.” The original audience probably found this hysterically funny; it is a challenge for the modern actress to convey the ambiguity while keeping the nurse apparently unaware of the double meaning of her speech. Note how Zeffirelli solves this problem.

Act II: Scene 5

The classic comic exchange between Juliet and the nurse illustrates the contrast between old and young which Juliet had outlined in her introductory speech. Note l. 65, in which Nurse is impressed by how “hot” (eager) Juliet is. Zeffirelli takes his cue from this line to direct Olivia Hussey to be extremely agitated, which fits her age and state of mind.

Act II: Scene 6

Watch how Zeffirelli directs this scene to emphasize the “violence” of the young peoples’ passion and trims the dialogue to concentrate the scene. The Friar’s last speech provides plenty of justification for Zeffirelli’s staging. Lots of foreshadowing here.

Act III,: Scene 1

Italians normally take a nap after lunch during the heat of the day. In the height of summer the heat is supposed to create madness. Shakespeare may have moved the action from spring to summer for just this reason. Despite all the laws against it, everyone was intimately familiar with the rules of dueling: to decline a challenge is to declare one’s loss of manhood and nobility. To call someone a villain was a very strong form of challenge. Romeo is here making a tremendous sacrifice for his love, but it looks to the bystanders like cowardice. What does l. 94, usually quoted as “A plague on both your houses,” mean in this context? Note that Mercutio does not die on stage, but is led off. When people do die on stage, Shakespeare has their bodies dragged off, for the simple reason that his stage lacked a curtain, and there was no other way to get the “dead” actors off. Modern directors are not so limited, of course. Why would this be a stronger scene if we were to witness Mercutio’s death? Romeo’s desire for vengeance triumphs over his love for Juliet. Can you make out an argument that this does not necessarily make him an unworthy lover? How is the theme of fatal speed illustrated by this scene? Capital punishment was routine for a wide variety of offenses in the Renaissance (a fact which seems to have done remarkably little to deter crime), as were mutilation, fines, and exile. Imprisonment was rarer, because it was expensive.

Act III: Scene 2

Under the flowery language, Juliet knows exactly what she wants: to make love with Romeo. She seeks to overcome her maidenly modesty and enjoy the legitimate pleasures of marital sex. In classical mythology, many heroes such as Orion were turned into constellations. In imagining such a fate for Romeo she unwittingly foreshadows his imminent end. Juliet’s reaction to the death of Tybalt is one of the pivotal points of the play, and one of the most difficult to stage convincingly. She must be seized by grief but still end by loving Romeo. What mood changes does she go through in this scene, and what causes these changes of mood? Note that Juliet’s rashness in changing moods mirrors that of Romeo in the previous scene. The theme of a young woman marrying death is an ancient one, featured prominently, for instance, in Sophocles’ Antigone.

Act III: Scene 3

Just as Juliet has said she is likely to be wedded to death, so Friar Laurence says Romeo is wedded to calamity. Willfully seeking death–committing suicide–was a mortal sin to both Catholics and Anglicans, a fact that is conveniently ignored by Shakespeare much of the time, but alluded to by the Friar at l. 24. Note how Romeo rebukes him for being old, just as Juliet at rebuked her nurse in Act II: Scene 5. One can understand why this play has always been popular with young people. What reasons does the Friar offer that Romeo should consider himself blessed? Mantua is the nearest city to Verona, roughly 25 miles distant.

Act III: Scene 4

The theme of undue haste continues. What earlier rash act causes Capulet’s rash decision to hurry the marriage of Paris and Juliet? Modern audiences may be prone to blame Paris for not courting Juliet directly, but he is behaving in a much more proper fashion than Romeo. Private courting between young people, though often romanticized, was officially disapproved of. Marriages were supposed to be negotiated by parents. However, widespread resentment against this pattern is reflected in countless stories from the Middle Ages through the 19th Century, when Europeans finally abandoned the custom.

Act III: Scene 5

Shakespeare opens this scene with a variation on the aubade, or “dawn song” tradition of the Middle Ages. Lovers who have spent the night together listen to the morning song of the birds with some alarm as they realize they must part. Again, what makes the scene fresh is not the theme itself but the elaborate and original treatment Shakespeare gives it. Zeffirelli underlines the physicality of the couple’s love in a way that would have been impossible for Shakespeare, by showing quite a bit of their flesh. See whether you think this works (though if you are liable to be offended by R-rated nudity, you may look away). Note how the threat of death runs through their dialogue. Every time we have seen Romeo and Juliet together there has been some form of pressure enforcing haste. Can you recall what these pressures have been? Note the foreshadowing in l. 56.

Juliet indulges in one of Shakespeare’s most clever word-games at ll. 60-65. It is worth puzzling out, and admiring the Elizabethan audience for having been able to pick up on it quickly. When at l. 85 Juliet says she wishes no one but she would avenge her cousin’s death what is the ambiguity in her speech? She continues to equivocate in her next speech where her mother hears her saying she hopes to behold Romeo dead while she is actually saying she will never be satisfied until she beholds him, and that her heart is dead. Her desire to “wreak her love” on Romeo’s body is even more obviously ambiguous: she wants to make love with him again. Why does Juliet ask her mother to find someone to carry a poison to Romeo: isn’t she placing his life in danger? Some viewers react negatively to the way Zeffirelli has directed Olivia Hussey to react to the news of her impending marriage to Paris; but it is important to keep in mind that she is very young, as the director emphasized the very first time we saw her in the film. She is having a typical fourteen-year-old tantrum. Her language is so often sophisticated we may be in danger of forgetting how immature she really is. Shakespeare’s audience expected such language from all manner of characters, and would not have seen an incongruity here. Note that her parents are as rash as she. Their overreaction may seem incredible, but in fact the choice “marry your designated husband or die” was a cliché. Many of us can remember otherwise sane adults banishing their male offspring from their homes when they returned from college with long hair in the sixties, and many parents claimed following the Kent State shootings that they would have wanted their own children to be shot to death by the National Guard had they been involved in antiwar protests. One of the major themes of this play is the foolishness of the older generation, whose passions are even more destructive than those of the younger generation. We have seen before that the nurse lacks scruples; but thus far her lax morals have benefited Juliet. Now she urges Juliet to commit bigamy, which was both illegal and a grievous sin. Juliet reacts quickly, cutting off the nurse from all further confidences. Note how in the final line Juliet is contemplating suicide, though she sensibly seeks Friar Laurence’s advice first.

Act IV: Scene 1

Paris seems to view marriage, as her father does, as a form of medical treatment for Juliet’s sorrow. They think she is too young to know what’s good for her. In what sense is Juliet’s face not her own (l. 36)? Friar Laurence’s plot may seem desperate, but remember that he is in big trouble. He has performed an illicit wedding and fervently wants to avoid colluding in bigamy. Juliet is threatening suicide, as had Romeo. Juliet’s willingness to dwell in a tomb (“charnel house”) is of course prophetic of her actual fate, and encourages the friar to unfold his plot to her. Well into the 19th century physicians were often unable to distinguish deep comas from death, leading to concern that people might sometimes be mistakenly buried alive. Such a story would not have been nearly so far-fetched in Shakespeare’s day as it would be in ours.

Act IV: Scene 2

Now that Juliet is determined on her course of action she does not hesitate to lie outright to her parents.

Act IV: Scene 3

It was traditional for the nurse to sleep in the same room with her young charge until she was married, so Juliet has to find an excuse to be alone. Her terrors at taking the drug are well depicted; she is no dashing heroine to drink off the potion without hesitation, but a very human young girl. Her determination is all the more striking because she has to overcome these very understandable fears. Not only does she fear going mad in the tomb, she almost goes mad here, as she imagines she sees Tybalt’s ghost seeking revenge on Romeo.

Act IV: Scene 4

Had Shakespeare been a woman he might have hesitated to describe an elaborate wedding banquet being planned and executed overnight. From now on Zeffirelli ruthlessly cuts dialogue from most scenes, omitting one important scene altogether. What effect do you think he is trying to achieve by thus abridging the ending of the play?

Act IV: Scene 5

Which character restates the theme of the bride wed to Death? On what grounds does Friar Laurence argue that Juliet is better off dead? What does l. 83 mean: “Yet nature’s tears are reason’s merriment”?

Act V: Scene 1

How does Romeo’s first speech foreshadow his eventual fate? How is the theme of excessive haste continued in this scene?

Act V: Scene 2

What has prevented Friar Laurence’s message from reaching Romeo?

Act V: Scene 3

Note that Zeffirelli omits an important incident from this scene. Why do you think he does? Why does Romeo say he loves Paris better than himself (l. 64)? In what way is his speech to Tybalt’s corpse parallel? Sometimes when Zeffirelli wants more dialogue than Shakespeare provides him, he simply has a line repeated. He rather overdoes this effect with l. 159. Again Juliet shows herself to be bold and resolute in action. Her suicide would of course have been viewed by the Church as a damnable act, but that did not keep the popular imagination from romanticizing it. The theater was considered a thoroughly wicked institution by pious folk and plays do not necessarily reflect the official morality of the day. After all, one of Shakespeare’s few poems published during his lifetime was “The Rape of Lucrece” which idealized suicide. Given what you know of Elizabethan values, why is the Prince’s role at the end of the play so important? Modern directors with different values are apt to prune his part severely or even omit him altogether from the conclusion. How do Montague and Capulet intend to symbolize their reconciliation?

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Last revised February 2, 2000.