Romeo and Juliet | 2013
About the Play by John Dunlap
Written as early as 1591, when Shakespeare’s poetic genius was in the first stages of its rapid growth, Romeo and Juliet ranks with the more mature Hamlet and Macbethamong the Bard’s most popular tragedies. It may also be the most familiar, with a plot substance tracing back to antiquity: two “starcross’d” lovers pushed inexorably toward disaster by the circumstances of feuding families.
The feud—its origins characteristically vague even to the two families involved—is between the Capulets and the Montagues in the late-medieval north Italian city-state of Verona. Romeo is a young Montague. Infatuated from a distance with Lord Capulet’s niece Rosaline, Romeo attends a lavish ball in disguise at the Capulet house in an effort to meet the unresponsive Rosaline. Instead, he meetsCapulet’s daughter, Juliet, and the two fall in love instantly.
Each has been brought up to hate the other’s family, yet in the famous balcony scene after the ball, Romeo overhears Juliet soliloquizing on the passionate love she feels for him despite the family feud. The next day, the two are secretly married with the help of their mutual confidant, Friar Lawrence. The good-hearted priest hopes that the union of Juliet and Romeo will end the destructive feud between the Capulets and the Montagues.
It does, eventually—but not remotely in the way Friar Lawrence hopes. After a relentless series of intermittently violent complications following a mortal duel between Romeo and Tybalt (Juliet’s hotheaded cousin), the Montagues and the Capulets are indeed reconciled. Friar Lawrence, in an eloquent deposition near the end of the last act, recounts the “tedious tale” with a precision that underlines the tragic cost of the reconciliation.
By “tedious,” the saddened elderly Friar seems to mean something like “worn down in spirit by the vicissitudes of life.” Yet the tale itself, in Shakespeare’s telling, is buoyant, swift, witty, wise, memorable, irresistible.