Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

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None of this imagery of transcendence – so daring that it might seem, at times, bordering on blasphemy – changes the plot of the play, which is almost entirely tragic – and indeed from a religious point of view indicts its main characters with the sin of suicide. But it surely changes the aura surrounding of Romeo and Juliet’s deaths, suggesting thoughts of the two lovers together in eternity, rather than the brutal and harrowing loss of two teenagers who had all to live for. Shakespeare’s controlling image for the lovers has been, throughout the play, the progress of a single day from dawn to darkness (and of a year from spring to winter). The play ends in deepest night, but there is also the inevitability of a new day (and a new spring) to follow: one of reconciliation on earth between Capulet and Montague, and – Shakespeare seems strongly to imply – new life in heaven.

The Prologue

2 ‘In fair Verona’ – An Italian writer, Luigi da Porto, was the first to set the (older) tale of the ‘star-crossed lovers’ in Verona. His version was retold in English in a poem by Arthur Brooke, The Tragicall Historie of Romeus and Juliet, published in 1562. This was Shakespeare’s main source, and it begins with an ‘Argument’ written as a sonnet, just as the play begins with a Prologue in the form of a sonnet. Verona, in the period in which Romeo and Juliet is set, was a populous and important city and had been the capital of its own extended territory at various points in the complex history of medieval and Renaissance Italy. Romeo and Juliet is the last of three plays Shakespeare set there, the other two being, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew.

3 ‘From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,’ – The source of the dispute between the Capulets and the Montagues is never explained, nor does ‘ancient’ necessarily imply that the two families have been enemies for a long time – the word can simply mean ‘previous’ or ‘old’. Note how the equivalent rhythms of ‘dignity’ and ‘mutiny’ emphasise these two key words at the opening of the play. The breaking out of hostilities between the families is a ‘mutiny’ in the sense that it is a breach of the peace and a revolt against the authority of Duke Escalus.

4 ‘civil blood makes civil hands unclean’ – Several of Shakespeare’s words here are loaded with meaning, they are not actual puns. The word ‘civil’ implies the unity required within any political community, the breach of this being civil strife or war; equally, ‘civil hands’ implies the civility of behaviour required of citizens to keep the peace. Hands have become ‘unclean’ both literally (with bloodstains) and figuratively, in that the political community of Verona has been ruptured.

5 ‘fatal loins’ – The primary meaning of ‘fatal’ here is to suggest that the lives of Romeo and Juliet were fated to end in tragedy from the moment they were born. A secondary meaning – ‘fatal’ meaning ‘mortal’ in the sense of something causing something else to die – is oxymoronic, since ‘loins’ are meant to bring forth life, not death.

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William Shakespeare