"Here's much to do with hate, but more with love," Romeo says at the play's beginning, and the dynamics of extreme emotion define the tone of the play (1.1.180). Romeo and Juliet deals in extremes that overlap or transform into each other. The Friar's lone voice of moderation is drowned out by storms of passion and violence; the insults tossed back and forth between the Montagues and Capulets alternate with Romeo and Juliet's loving exchanges of vows.
Even the play's highly sexualized language is often discussed in violent terms: "If he be marrièd, / my grave is like to be my wedding bed," Juliet says before she learns Romeo's identity (1.5.148-149), and then, "I should kill thee with much cherishing" (2.2.198). All this strong emotion demands resolution—and it doesn't seem to much matter whether we get that resolution through kiss or through a sword.
You probably guessed that The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is, well, a tragedy. (And yes, that's the full title on the 1599 version of the play.) But for the first two acts, it doesn't seem like a tragedy at all. In fact, it unfolds like a classic "comedy," complete with dirty jokes, slapstick humor, and lovers struggling to be together.
So, where does the play become a "tragedy," exactly? It seems like Mercutio's death in Act 3, Scene 1 is the turning point of the play. It's a tough transition for the audience—we've gotten used to laughing at the bawdy Nurse and the antics of Romeo's friends, and then suddenly the play stops being funny. Does this mean the play is flawed? We don't think so. The initial comedic nature of the play ultimately makes the tragic ending even more painful.
But don't just take our word for it. Check out this list of common conventions typical of Shakespearean tragedy. (If you're feeling really tragic, try comparing this list to our discussions of "Genre" for Hamlet.)
Dramatic work: Check. Romeo and Juliet is definitely a play.
Serious or somber theme: Check. Despite the funny bits in the first half of the play, teenage suicide and deadly street brawls are pretty much the definition of "somber."
Hero's got a major flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force: Check. Check. Romeo and Juliet are definitely in "conflict with some overpowering force"—like a long-standing family feud.
If we want to single out Romeo as our hero/protagonist, then we could also say that he's got a "major flaw of character." The kid is rash and reckless (sneaking up to Juliet's window when he knows her family will break his legs if he's caught, running off to elope, committing suicide moments before Juliet awakens from a deep slumber, and so on). In other words, Romeo's impetuousness causes a whole lot of trouble in the play.
Hero is destined for destruction and downfall: Check. If you've been paying attention, then you already know what we're going say here. The play drops several hints that our "star-crossed" lovers are fated to die. Reread the opening Prologue for the evidence and then check out our discussion of the theme of "Fate."
Now, if you're not buying into this whole "fate" is responsible for Romeo and Juliet's tragedy thing, then you're not alone. Poet W.H. Auden argues that everything is Romeo and Juliet's fault—they're too passionate and their love is far too excessive. And, in the logic of 16th century Christianity, suicide is basically the ultimate act of free will—taking your life in your own hands, rather than letting God sort you out.
Not all tragedies end in death but all of Shakespeare's tragedies do: Check. Easy-peasy. Romeo and Juliet commit suicide in the play's final scene (5.3). Plus, Romeo manages to stab Paris (5.3) and also Tybalt, who killed his BFF Mercutio, along the way (3.1). Plus, the Prince promises us that some heads will definitely roll in the play's final lines when he says "Some shall be pardoned, and some punished" for the part they've played in the tragic events (5.3.319).
Despite the high body count, political order gets back to normal at the end: Check. Sure, our heroes are dead. But the Prince swoops in to hand a little justice and to get things in Verona back to normal. Even his intervention hardly seems necessary, though, because the parents of Romeo and Juliet promise to end the feud and erect statues in honor of each other's children (5.3).
Yep: the full title of the 1599 version of the play reads The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. We happen to think "excellent and lamentable" is a pretty accurate description of the play. Other than that, the title is pretty straightforward: the play is a tragedy about two crazy kids named Romeo and Juliet.
In the play's final scene, Romeo finds Juliet's "dead" body and, rather than face life without her, swallows a vial of poison moments before Juliet wakes up. When Juliet realizes her husband is dead, she tries to kill herself by kissing Romeo. Since there's not enough poison left on his lips, she stabs herself with Romeo's "happy dagger" (5.3.174). (Sexual allusion intended.)
No spoilers to worry about here: as tragic as it is, the ending of Romeo and Juliet shouldn't surprise anyone. We're told from the get-go that our "star-crossed lovers [will] take their life" (Prologue). We also know that Romeo and Juliet belongs to the genre of "tragedy," and Shakespeare's tragedies always, always, always end in death. (You can read more about this by going to "Genre.) The point of reading or watching Romeo and Juliet isn't to find out what happens, but to watch it happen—and to feel some strong emotions along the way.
In the Prologue, the Chorus also tells us that "their death [will] bury their parents' strife," and it does. In one of the most ironic moments of the play, the couple's parents are so devastated by the deaths of their children that they kiss and make up, each father promising to erect an elaborate statue to commemorate the other's child (5.3).
Hmm. Do we detect a bit of competition here? When Montague announces his plans to "raise [Juliet's] statue in pure gold," he basically tells Capulet he's going to outdo him. "But I can give thee more," he brags (5.3.309). How long do you think this peace is going to last?
If you want to get all metaphorical, there's also a way of seeing the end as the ultimate sexual fulfillment. Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber points out that the "cup" Romeo drinks poison from is a traditional symbol of female sexuality. Juliet, in contrast, stabs herself with Romeo's dagger—a traditional image of male sexuality. (Do we have to explain these symbols? Think genitalia.) Garber argues that, symbolically, Romeo and Juliet combine physical death and sexual climax (source).
This reading makes sense. Death and sex are linked throughout the entire play (which you can read more about in "Symbols") and Juliet does say that ingesting poison by kissing Romeo's lips would "make [her] die with a restorative" (5.3.171). In other words, she's suggesting that the kiss and the poison would heal or "restore" her by reuniting her with her husband. But, since poison isn't a viable option for her, she chooses to unsheathe Romeo's sword and then thrusts it into her own body.
(We didn't even try to put sexual innuendo in that sentence.)
After you read the ending of Shakespeare's play, check out the ending of Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film version of the play. If you can snag a copy, check out the ending of Baz Luhrmann's, too—we can't find a clip online, but it's definitely worth Netflixing.
We might be in Verona, but don't think you're reading a travel guide: Shakespeare's setting of Verona is more like a shorthand for "exotic and crazy" than a real setting.
What we think is super cool about the setting is how Shakespeare shows us that Romeo and Juliet have such different worlds. We always meet Romeo in the streets, never in his own house—even though we do hear that he likes to spend a lot of time moping around his bedroom. But in general, Romeo is part of a freewheeling and masculine world, wandering around the streets with the other hot-headed violent street youths from both families.
Not Juliet. She's a sheltered daughter, almost never allowed outside the walls of her father's house. Almost all of her scenes take place inside; we never see her on the street. Romeo has to actively invade her world in order to meet Juliet by crashing the Capulet's party and then climbing up to her balcony.
And then there's Friar Laurence's church, a neutral place where Romeo and Juliet's world can overlap. This seems to be the only place Juliet is allowed to go outside of her home, (for purposes of confessing sins—presumably not to commit them). Friar Laurence is Romeo's confessor as well. What does it say that this religious setting is the only neutral place in the play? Does it set up the Catholic Church as a force for good, or as a secretive and destructive power? (Hint: the Catholic Church was not super popular in England in the sixteenth century.)
Like most of Shakespeare's plays, the setting is so vague that theatrical and film interpretations of the play can go wild: from West Side Story's 1950s New York City, which is divided by ethnic tensions, to the futuristic "Verona Beach" of Baz Luhrmann's film version of Romeo + Juliet. What most interpretations keep is the sense of a hot climate that provokes the passions, as Benvolio tells us: "For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring" (3.1.4).
Well, it's Shakespeare: we can't lie to you. He may have been writing for the masses back in the sixteenth-century, but it's easy to miss the jokes if you have to keep flipping to the footnotes, and puns on collier/ choler/ collar aren't exactly headlining on Comedy Central. Take the very beginning:
Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. (Prologue.1-4)
Even though these words especially difficult, the poetic language and tricky sentence structure make the meaning, well, a little obscure. (Translation: There were two important families in Verona, and we're about to cover the latest installment of their long-standing feud.) Still, it's a classic love story for a reason—and Shmoop has got your back.
Right from the Prologue we know Shakespeare wants to make this play a big deal. Check out how epic his language is, right from the beginning:
Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life; (Prologue.1-6)
Obviously, this isn't going to be a romantic comedy, not with mighty words like "ancient grudge," "civil blood," "fatal loins," and "star-crossed lovers." Melodramatic? Sure. But Shakespeare makes it work, because the plot actually does live up to the hype.
Besides choosing epic-sounding words, Shakespeare pens a slew of passionate exchanges. In addition to Romeo and Juliet's romantic moments, lots of other characters get passionate dialogue, like Mercutio's repetition of "A plague o' both your houses!" (3.1.94), and Friar Laurence's "Ah, what an unkind hour / Is guilty of this lamentable chance!" (5.3.150-151). Again, it might seem melodramatic—but it's totally appropriate for the play.
Well, you didn't think you were going to get away without some poetry, did you? Expect for exchanges between servants and some bawdy jokes, Romeo and Juliet is written in blank verse, which is a less-fancy way of saying "unrhymed iambic pentameter." "Unrhymed" is pretty straightforward, but let's break down that iambic pentameter stuff.
Starting with the first word: "Penta-" means five, so we know we've got five of whatever a "meter" is. A meter is a group of two syllables, or "feet." The two feet are either stressed or unstressed, in some sort of pattern, which gives the line that certain rhythm that makes the line sound "poetic." Put it all together, and all of Romeo and Juliet's lines will have ten feet, or ten syllables.
Now for the "iambic" part. An "iamb" is a foot, the basic unit of meter. It's a stress pattern—actually, the most popular stress pattern in English—composed of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Think, "negLECT," "oBEY," "toNIGHT," or "misTAKE."
The easiest way to explain this is to just sound it out. Let's look one of the lines from the Prologue:
in FAIR | VerON | a WHERE | we LAY | our SCENE
where CIV | il HANDS | make CIV | il BLOOD | unCLEAN
Notice how we skipped a line there? That's because not every single line is perfect iambic pentameter. Line after line of perfect meter ends up sounding more like a nursery rhyme than poetry, so poets (and playwrights) will play with the meter to emphasize certain words. Let's skip back to one of the non-perfect lines in the Prologue:
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
From AN | cient GRUDGE | BREAK to | NEW MUT | ti NY
See how the meter gets all wacky in the middle there? By stressing the first syllable of the third foot, Shakespeare calls attention to the violence of the "break"—the syllable breaks out of the meter, just like the violence breaks out in the city. Pretty cool.
Unless you're fluent in childish Elizabethan gestures (anyone? Bueller?), you might be wondering what the what Sampson's up to when he spots the Montague's servants on the streets and announces, "I will bite my thumb at / them, which is disgrace to them if they bear it" (1.1.43-44).
Basically, thumb biting, which involves biting and then flicking one's thumb from behind the upper teeth, is a Shakespearean version of flipping someone the bird and saying "nanny nanny boo boo." It's an insulting gesture that sounds just a wee bit (okay, a lot) immature. Here's how it all goes down in the play:
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
I do bite my thumb, sir.
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
[aside to Gregory] Is the law of our side, if I
No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir,
but I bite my thumb, sir. (1.1.45-52)
Sampson doesn't have a good reason to insult the Montagues' servants—he's basically looking to stir up trouble because his masters (the Capulets) are feuding with the Montagues. The funny thing is, Sampson's too much of a coward to own up to his silly gesture because the "law" won't be on his "side" if his thumb biting causes a big old brawl (he doesn't want to get busted for causing a fracas).
Pretty dumb, right? And that seems to be Shakespeare's point. The Capulet/ Montague feud, which has obviously trickled down to involve their servants, is completely absurd. Just like Sampson's thumb biting.
Sex and death: pretty much the opposite of each other, right? Not in Romeo and Juliet. In fact, Romeo and Juliet sees to think sex and death go together like, uh, Oreos and milk.
In the very first scene, Sampson crudely puns on the term "maidenhead" (virginity) when he equates sword fighting against men with raping women: "When I have fought with the men I will be civil with the maids—I will cut off their heads […] the heads of maids or their maidenheads" (1.1.23-24; 26). Yikes. Remind us to keep away from Sampson, K?
But crude sex/ death jokes aren't just for belligerent servants. Even Juliet links sex and death by punning on the word "die" when, day-dreaming about her impending wedding night with Romeo, she imagines Romeo being transformed into a bunch of "little stars" lighting up the night sky: "Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die / Take him and cut him out in little stars, / And he will make the face of heaven so fine" (3.2.23-25). Fun fact: Juliet's playing with the fact that "die" was slang for "orgasm." So, "when I shall die" … yeah. You can connect the dots, right?
Even Capulet gets in on the game, when Capulet sees his daughter's lifeless body and says that "death" has "lain with" (slept with) Juliet: "See, there she lies, / Flower as she was, deflowered by him. Death is my son-in-law, death is my heir" (4.5.42-44). (By the way, Capulet has no idea at this point that Juliet is married to Romeo—he still thinks she was all set to marry Paris and is still a virgin.) So, "death" (think orgasm) is linked to "deflowering" (think death). Pretty twisted.
If your mind isn't blown enough yet, we have one more for you: Romeo drinks his poison from a goblet, a traditional symbol of female sexuality. (Sound familiar? This same symbolism is used in the Da Vinci Code, where the Grail, a big V-shaped goblet, symbolizes, well, a woman's genitalia.) Juliet, in contrast, stabs herself with Romeo's dagger—i.e., a penis (source Marjorie Garber). Oh, and guess what the word "vagina" literally means in Latin? "Sheath." So, when she thrusts the dagger into her chest, as though she's putting it into a sheath … We're pretty sure you can connect the dots on that one, too.
But what does it all mean? Symbolically, Romeo and Juliet combine physical death and sexual climax. It's all pretty ironic, really. Typically, sex acts between men and women are supposed to result in the creation of life (making babies, that is). Yet, in the play, that's just not the case.
If you like jumbo shrimp or boneless ribs, then you and Shakespeare have something in common: you both like oxymora.
An oxymoron is a Greek expression that refers to the combination of two terms that are ordinarily opposite—like "oxy," meaning "sharp," and "moron," meaning "dull." Jumbo shrimp? Boneless ribs? Both oxymora.
Shakespeare loved these things, particularly in Romeo and Juliet. For example, at the end of the famous balcony scene, when Romeo is leaving, Juliet says "parting is such sweet / sorrow" (2.2.199-200). "Sweet sorrow?" Totally oxymora.
Think that's impressive? Get a load of Juliet's use of 6 oxymora when she finds out that lover boy (that would be Romeo) has killed her cousin, Tybalt:
O serpent heart, hid with a flow'ring face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical!
Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despised substance of divinest show!
Just opposite to what thou justly seem'st,
A damnèd saint, an honorable villain!
O nature, what hadst thou to do in hell
When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend
In moral paradise of such sweet flesh?
Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound? O, that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous palace! (3.2.79-91)
Clearly, Juliet is experiencing some mixed emotions—she wonders how the love of her life, the guy she thought was so wonderful, could be a killer. Juliet's use of oxymoron here gives expression to her turmoil.
This passage is also full of paradoxes, longer statements that contradict themselves and nonetheless seem true—like when Juliet asks, "Was ever a book containing such vile matter so fairly bound?"
The point is that these oxymora and paradoxes work with the major paradox at the center of the play, expressed in Juliet's cry, "My only love sprung from my only hate" (1.5.152). By using oxymora and paradox through the play, Shakespeare manages to make the form (how it's being said) match up with the content (what's being said). Pretty nifty.
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger—unless it puts you into a near-death state that fools your husband. The point is, poison (and medicine) are a big deal in Romeo and Juliet. Like love and hate, the difference between them is pretty slim.
Before Romeo and Juliet take their lives, Friar Laurence, who's big into herbal medicine, shows Romeo a flower and makes a cryptic statement that seems to echo throughout the play:
Within the infant rind of this weak flower
Poison hath residence and medicine power:
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.
Two such opposèd kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs—grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant. (2.2.23-31)
Friar Laurence suggests that, depending on how it's used, a flower can be healing (because it's aromatic) or poisonous (if it's orally ingested). The Friar also muses that people are a lot like the flower he holds in his hand—being full of both "grace" and "rude will," human beings also have the capacity to be good or deadly, depending on whether or not "rude will" takes over.
We can't help but notice that Friar Laurence's observations speak directly to the play's tragedy—Romeo and Juliet's love turns deadly when it's "poisoned" by their family's hateful feud. At the same time, their love also has the capacity to heal, which becomes evident when their parents decide to reconcile at the play's end.
First things first: if you haven't already, go back and read Mercutio's Queen Mab speech in Act I, Scene 4. (Or give yourself a little treat, and watch this version from Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version.)
Let's start with the basics. According to Mercutio's vivid description, Queen Mab is a tiny fairy that rides around in a coach made out of an "empty hazelnut" with spider's "legs" for wheel spokes (1.4.72, 64). The coach is driven by an even tinier "grey-coated gnat" and drawn by a "team of little atomi" (tiny atoms).
Queen Mab spends her time galloping over the noses and lips of sleepers, filling their dreams with wild fantasies (lovers dream of love, soldiers dream of slitting throats, lawyers dream of winning lawsuits, etc.). Mab (whose name is also a slang word for "whore") is also kind of scary. When she's in a bad mood, she plagues women who dream of "kisses" with nasty sores ("blisters") that might just be cold sores but might also be nastier things, like pox from syphilis, and she's fond of making young, virginal girls have naughty dreams.
So, why is everything about Queen Mab so tiny and sexual? To answer that, we need to think about what it is that prompts Mercutio's wild rant in the first place. Fed up with Romeo's lovesick moping for Rosaline, Mercutio taunts his buddy by saying that Queen Mab must have paid him a visit in the dream Romeo tries to tell him about. Mercutio also informs Romeo that dreams "are the children of an idle brain," which is another way of saying that Romeo is an idiot and his dreams about Rosaline are ridiculous (1.4.104). Given the context of the speech, it seems like Mercutio is suggesting that, like Queen Mab, dreams (especially Romeo's) are small and insignificant.
Pretty wild stuff, don't you think? It's easy to see why, in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film, Romeo + Juliet, Mercutio takes a hit of ecstasy before delivering his "Queen Mab" speech—the whole thing can seem like drug-induced nonsense. Romeo all but says so when he yells, "Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk'st of nothing" (1.4.101-102).
Like a candle in the darkness, the imagery of light in dark comes up a lot in Romeo and Juliet. "O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright," Romeo says when he first sees Juliet. "It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night / As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear" (1.5.42-53).
Variations on this imagery are repeated again and again—images of Juliet as a sun rising in the darkness, of Juliet's eyes shining in the sky, images of Romeo's body cut out in little stars, of Romeo and Juliet's love as a bright furious lightning flash. At times, the image of a flash of light disappearing into the dusk seems to symbolize both the brilliant strength of Romeo and Juliet's love, as well as its transience. The imagery of light and darkness also picks up the play's emphasis on the contrasts between love and hate, passion and death.
Night is a pretty important time in the play. It's when all the passionate love scenes occur so, night seems to shelter and protects the lovers, while the glare of day threatens to reveal them. In contrast, the heat of the sun makes the young men of Verona irritable and prone to violence and the street brawls occur during the daytime.
We often think of night as both a time for romance and liberation, as well as a time of danger, and the imagery of night and darkness in Romeo and Juliet carries both night's promises and its threats. Hidden in darkness, Romeo and Juliet's love is free from the social rules that would divide them. But danger also lurks in the darkness, and the secrecy of Romeo and Juliet's marriage will prove fatal to them.
"For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring" (3.1.4).
Say what you will about Baz Luhrmann (uh, vulgar and flashy), he gets it: during Romeo and Juliet's first love scene, he dunks Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in a swimming pool. So what? Check out what Romeo says to Juliet during that scene: "Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized" (2.2.54).
In the Christian tradition, baptism—dunking or sprinkling someone with water—is a symbol of rebirth; it welcomes new Christians into the community of faith. By saying that Juliet's love will "baptize" him, Romeo is saying that Juliet's love has the potential to make him reborn.
And that's not all. Romeo is constantly comparing his love for Juliet to a religious experience. When the pair first meets, Romeo calls Juliet a "saint" and implies that he'd really like to 'worship' her body (1.5.114). Not only that, but Romeo's "hand" would be "blessed" if it touched the divine Juliet's (1.5). Eventually, Juliet picks up on this 'religion of love' conceit (a conceit is just an elaborate metaphor) and declares that Romeo is "the god of [her] idolatry" (2.2.120).
Both lovers have intimations of coming death—Romeo before he even arrives at the Capulet's party, and Juliet when she sees Romeo climbing from her window on his way to exile in Mantua. "Oh god, I have an ill-divining soul," she calls down to him. "Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low, / as one dead in the bottom of a tomb" (3.5.54-56). In the most literal possible way, Juliet's drug-induced deathlike state foreshadows her own death. And the apothecary from whom Romeo buys the poison is described as looking like death—thin, starving, with hollow eyes. Romeo buys his suicide weapon from a man that symbolizes death.
In the first half of Act I, both Romeo and Juliet have potential romantic partners, but neither one is really satisfied. Romeo is literally unsatisfied because Rosaline has sworn a vow of chastity—and Juliet is unsatisfied because she's thirteen, and boy bands haven't been invented yet.
Romeo and Juliet meet and obviously fall immediately in love. There's a lot of flirting and love poetry—but don't get out the bon-bons just yet, because there's a major frustration stage ahead of us.
Romeo and Juliet realize that the person they just fell in love with is one of their greatest enemies. This is like … if the head cheerleader and quarterback from two rival schools fell in love: they want to be together, but everything they've ever known tells them not to trust each other. Can their relationship ever work?
Maybe in a romantic comedy—but this is tragedy, baby. Romeo and Juliet decide to get married anyway, but less than an hour after they say their vows, there's a big brawl and Romeo ends up killing Juliet's cousin, Tybalt. She forgives him, but he's banished from Verona … and Juliet's parents decide they want her to get married to Paris that very week. Eek!
Being forced to marry Paris is a fate worse than death, as far as Juliet is concerned. So, she fakes her own death. Pretend death becomes reality when Romeo hears the news of Juliet's death and believes that she is really gone. Minutes before Juliet is due to wake from her drugged sleep, Romeo comes to her tomb, kisses her good-bye, and kills himself. Juliet regains consciousness to find her husband lying dead beside her. When she kisses him, she realizes that his lips are warm and that she's missed him by a matter of minutes. In despair, she takes his dagger and stabs herself.
The play opens with a public brawl. A simple hand-gesture from a Capulet servant to a group of Montague servants spirals into a full-out fight, but the Prince is so over it. From this point onwards, he announces, anyone who fights in public will be put to death. Obviously, this is setting up a big confrontation later in the play.
Meanwhile, we meet our two lovahs. On the Capulet side, thirteen-year-old Juliet has just gotten her first proposal from some way older dude she's never met. On the Montague side, Romeo is supposedly head over heels in love with a girl named Rosaline who won't give her the time of day. We're all set up for a rousing …
Romeo crashes a Capulet party in hopes of seeing Rosaline, but instead he sees Juliet. It's love at first sight. Literally: they talk for, like, five minutes before they're making out. (We know this is classic lit and all, but seriously? Have some self-respect, kids.) So, where's the conflict? Romeo finds out that Juliet is a Capulet. Then Juliet finds out that Romeo is a Montague. Dun dun dun.
When the two lovers finally get some alone time later that night, they decide that the family feud doesn't matter—they have to be together. So, they enlist the help of some adults who really should know better: Juliet's nurse and Romeo's confessor, a priest named Friar Laurence. Less than twenty-four hours after they've met, Romeo and Juliet are tying the knot in secret at Friar Laurence's church.
Okay, this is unexpected but still fairly straightforward: what's the complication? Tybalt is so furious that Romeo crashed the Capulet party that he's decided to challenge Romeo to a duel. Yep, this is going to be a problem.
The big rumble goes down, and here's how it plays out: Tybalt kills Mercutio; Romeo kills Tybalt; and then Romeo flees the scene just before the Prince shows up to pronounce him banished. Oops. Sounds pretty climactic to us.
But then we have to have a literal climax (sorry—it's Romeo and Juliet. There's a lot of sex). Both Romeo and Juliet are hysterical about the whole banishment thing, so the Friar and the Nurse figure out a way for Romeo and Juliet to spend one night together before Romeo leaves for Mantua, a nearby city. We don't get to see it on stage, but trust us: it happens.
But Romeo has barely climbed out the window before Juliet is being forced into marriage with Paris. Everyone thinks this marriage is a good idea, so Juliet runs to the Friar and, um, threatens to commit suicide if he can't help her figure a way out of the mess that she's in. Solution? Juliet will drink a weird potion that will make her appear as if she's dead. But when she wakes up in her family tomb, he and Romeo will be there waiting for her. Great idea.
When Romeo arrives at the Capulet tomb, Paris is there, mourning over his dead almost-wife. Paris gets in the way, so Romeo kills him. Then he breaks into the tomb and embraces his dead wife. She still looks as if she's alive, Romeo says, which almost kills the audience. But he has no way of knowing the truth, so he kisses Juliet farewell and drinks the poison.
The Friar shows up about one minute too late, just in time to watch Juliet wake up from her drugged sleep. She immediately looks for Romeo—and finds him lying dead next to her. The Friar hears noise from outside, and tries to convince Juliet to run away. But Juliet refuses to leave Romeo's side. The Friar exits, and Juliet takes Romeo's dagger and stabs herself.
When the citizens of Verona—including Romeo and Juliet's parents—come in, the two lovers are lying side by side, both dead. The families decide that maybe this whole thing has gone on long enough and decide to be friends. Happy ending?
Romeo and Juliet fall in love, only to realize that they are on opposite sides of an ongoing war between their families. Act I ends with the lovers pursuing their affair in the famous balcony scene. Swoon!
Romeo is banished from Verona for—oops!—killing Juliet's cousin Tybalt, so the Friar has Juliet fake her death so she can join Romeo in Mantua. Great plan, right? Well, it might have been—except that Romeo doesn't get the message that she's actually still alive.
Romeo kills himself next to Juliet's comatose body; when she awakes, she kills herself in response to finding his corpse. The one upside? The families finally end their cycle of hate.