Romeo and Juliet: Synopsis and Criticism
Romeo and Juliet is a tragic play written by William Shakespeare in the early days of his career. It is one of the most well known love stories known to man, having been passed down through generations, taught in schools and universities, and translated, interpreted, and adapted in many languages. There are many reasons why this play about two star crossed lovers struck a chord with each and every person who comes into contact with it, not least of which is the fact that we all empathize with young lovers struggling to be together in the face of extreme adversity. Add to that familial feuds, friendships in unexpected corners, and the ultimate sacrifice of death, and we have in our hands unputdownable literature that translates equally beautifully on the silver screen.
The story begins
The story is set in 15th century Verona, Italy. Romeo and Juliet belong to the warring families of Montague and Capulet respectively. The two meet at a ball thrown by Juliet’s father, which Romeo, to use the modern term, gatecrashes. Love sparks between the two at first sight, but they are quick to realize that their path to happiness is much strewn with hurdles, given that their respective families are on extremely unpleasant terms. However, they profess their love to each other in the famous ‘balcony scene’, and promise to get married the next day. Despite a few obstacles, they do get secretly married the next day, thanks to the kind and helpful Friar Lawrence.
Things turn dark
The situation escalates soon as Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin who had spotted Romeo attending the ball uninvited, but was restricted from starting a fight in the house by Juliet’s father, challenges Romeo to a duel. Romeo refuses, since Tybalt is now in effect his brother in law. Tybalt’s taunts, however, enrage Mercutio, Romeo’s closest friend, and he engages in the duel, and is killed as a result. Horrified and grief stricken by the unexpected turn of events, Romeo attacks and kills Tybalt. The Prince feels things have now gone too far between the warring families, resulting in the death of a kin, and orders Romeo to be exiled. Before leaving, Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage.
Juliet grieves Romeo’s departure, knowing he would be executed if he ever returns to Verona. Mistaking her to be pining over Tybalt’s death, her father decides to marry her off to Count Paris, a wealthy gentleman. Finding no support from her mother, Juliet resorts to asking for help from Friar Lawrence, and they hatch a plan. He gives a potion to Juliet that would put her into a coma for forty two hours, and in the meantime sends a letter to Romeo detailing the plan to him. Juliet takes the potion and accordingly falls asleep; believing to be dead, she is placed in the family crypt. The letter, however, does not reach Romeo, and he learns instead of her death from a friend. Not caring about his life anymore, Romeo procures poison and comes to Verona and enters the crypt, where he kills Paris in a scuffle. Seeing Juliet’s still form, he breaks down in grief and takes his own life. Juliet soon awakens, and seeing Romeo dead, kills herself with Romeo’s dagger. The two families arrive to find the three dead bodies, and decide to reconcile.
Theme of love
The predominant theme in Romeo and Juliet is, obviously, doomed love. The two young people meet, fall in love, are faced with multiple adversities, and finally kill themselves in the hope of being united in the afterlife. This is stretched into the side story of Count Paris, who, by all indication, does appear to love Juliet, only to be thwarted by her apparent death.
Theme of violence
Violence is also another clear theme present throughout the tale. It begins with the violent relationship between the Montagues and the Capulets, and continues in the many feuds and deaths that occur in the name of love and honor. Unwarranted and innocent deaths occur in the story- from Mercutio and Paris, to the unfortunate lovers themselves.
This apparently simple, if gory, tale has been profoundly criticized in later eras. The commonest criticism of course lies in the fact that both Romeo and Juliet are exceedingly young, with scholars estimating that they would be no more than sixteen and thirteen respectively. The fact that their romance has been depicted to be so ill fated does raise concerns among modern parents regarding its inclusion, albeit in abraded form, in the school curriculum of adolescents. Besides, the fact that they engage in sexual activity has also raised concerns among modern parents; in the age when teaching abstinence has become of utmost importance, young characters unabashedly making love does give out an ambiguous message. It is important to understand, however, that the play was set and written at a time when marriage between adolescents and teenagers was fairly common, and consummation of the marriage is also quite natural.
From modern psychological perspectives, it is easy to understand, if not condone, the behaviors of Romeo, Juliet, and the accompanying youngsters. The protagonists of the tale are young, and everyone has been brought up with an understanding that the Montagues and the Capulets are enemies. The headiness of young love is starkly seen in the declaration of love and promise of marriage between the two after a chance and brief meeting, and the steps that they take later on can also only be described as headstrong and blinded by passion in modern perspectives. The behavior of Tybalt, Mercutio, and Count Paris is also quite in keeping with the angst common with teenagers; even today, rash acts of anger and jealousy that culminate in terrible consequences are not unheard of. One might question the behavior of the benevolent Friar Tuck; but again, it is important to remember that this is a play that needed certain plot devices to move along.
Also read: Essay on all is fair in love and war
Despite all the negative criticism that Romeo and Juliet faces today, it remains one of the most popular subjects of study and reinterpretation. It has been staged numerous times all over the world in its original form, and the original play has been reproduced in film and television countless times. The timelessness of the concept and the events of the play means that it can be adapted in any era and in any language; cultural differences do not form a barrier to depicting star crossed lovers meeting a tragic end.