If you’re reading this blog post, it’s likely that you’ve heard of Romeo and Juliet somehow. You’ve probably taken your kids to the cinema to see the gnome version, sobbed over Di Caprio’s sultry angst as the protagonist, or sang along to the music of West Side Story, but do you really know what it’s all about?
Romeo and Juliet is arguably one of the greatest love stories of all time, and one of the most well-known. Thought to have been written around 1595-96, it is the tale of two ‘star-crossed lovers’ who fall deeply and swiftly for each other, but are forbidden to be together. Romeo belongs to the House of Montague, and Juliet to the Capulets; noble families that have been fighting between themselves for years, to no avail. Prince Escalus, the ruler of Verona (a city in Italy, the setting for the play), attempts to prevent their conflict by promising death to any individual who disturbs the peace in the future. Unfortunately for our protagonists and their fellow characters, death is the only way in which to bring any peace between them.
The first to die, the day after Romeo and Juliet have married in secret, is Mercutio (a Montague), murdered by Tybalt (a Capulet). In revenge, Romeo kills Tybalt and is consequently forever banished from Verona by the Prince. Juliet is then faced with a life-changing dilemma; tell her parents of her marriage to Romeo to avoid her looming betrothal to another man, or find other means to escape it. Of course, she chooses the latter, taking advice from the Friar who hatches a plan; she is to take a potion that would make her appear dead, so she would be entombed, to then be rescued alive by the Friar and Romeo. Juliet does as is instructed, understanding that a letter will reach Romeo explaining all.
As expected of a tragedy, her lover does not receive the letter, and upon hearing of Juliet’s death, Romeo kills himself at her tomb. When she awakes, she then does the same, unable to live without him.
Sadly, the death of their children is the only thing that encourages the Montagues and Capulets to end their feud, which they do agree to at the end of the play, ‘O brother Montague, give me thy hand.’
"For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo"
Of course, as the most famous love story in the history of English Literature, this is the main theme of the play. It tells of passionate, romantic love, love at first sight, young love (Juliet was supposedly only thirteen!), and depicts love as an uncontrollable force. Love is what drives this play, and what drives the worldwide existence of Romeo and Juliet to this day, yet it is important to realise and remember that Shakespeare is showing us a different side to the picture perfect view we are so often subjected to. Love makes the young couple disobey and abandon in their obsession with each other, (an obsession that, I might add, comes only hours after Romeo’s obsession with another woman).
The audience is told as soon as the play begins that it will end in tragedy. The ‘star-crossed lovers’ relationship is of a ‘death-marked love’, and the family feud is one that will not halt without ‘their children’s end’. However much the audience or reader roots for the couple, we know they will die and that fate cannot be meddled with.
"Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight, for I ne'er saw true beauty till this night."
Romeo and Juliet is known worldwide, by all types of people of varying ages and nationality. It has been translated into dozens of languages, performed in over 24 countries in the last decade, turned into film, musicals, ballet, and television adaptations. No wonder you’ve heard of it.
Despite being over 400 years old, this play will never lose its charm, neither to a great lover of Shakespeare or to a world subconsciously harmonious with it. Romeo and Juliet will always be relevant, as long as human beings continue to fall in love and give themselves up to it.