Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

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6 ‘a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life,’ – To be ‘star-cross’d’ is to be impeded by the ‘wandering stars’ (or planets) that astrologers believe control our fates. Astrologers base their fortune-telling on the alignment of planets with the zodiacal constellations at the exact moment of someone’s birth. The implication, therefore, is that Romeo and Juliet’s fate was decided from the first moment of their independent existence as new-born babies. The verb ‘cross’, however, is richer in meaning than this and can imply that Romeo and Juliet were both ‘cross’d’ in the sense of being ‘passed over’ by the stars, their love lifting their hearts up to the heavens. Shakespeare’s word-play fusing life and death continues, since ‘take their life’ implies both the suicidal meaning of ‘to take one’s life’ and the literal one of ‘taking’ – ‘acquiring’ – one’s life from one’s parents’ ‘loins’.

7-8 ‘Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows/ Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.’ – ‘misadventur’d piteous overthrows’ = ‘unfortunate sorrowful deaths’. Note how Shakespeare’s fluent polysyllables in the first line set up a noticeable iambic rhythm that is reversed in the second line, which is basically trochaic, making the iamb ‘their death’ particularly emphatic.

9 ‘death-mark’d love’ – primarily ‘marked out for death’, but also with a sense that, from the start, their love is stained and diminished by their future death.

12 ‘two hours traffic of our stage’ – This is probably more of a conventional statement of how long a play was expected to last on the Elizabethan stage rather than an accurate measure of the performance time of Romeo and Juliet, which is closer to three hours. The word ‘traffic’ here means ‘dealings’ or ‘business’ – originally it referred to trading and other commercial activities, as in ‘trafficking goods’.

14 ‘What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.’ – ‘We will do our best to hide the deficiencies of the play by our diligence in acting it out.’

Act One, Scene One

1 ‘We’ll not carry coals.’ – Such work would inevitably smutch someone’s clothes, and doing so came to mean ‘put up with an insult’, which is what Sampson means here. His name probably implies he is the bigger and burlier of the two as Sampson (now usually spelled Samson) was a Hercules-like warrior from the bible; Gregory seems to be the more intelligent.

2 ‘colliers’ – Apparently, the profession implied dishonesty at the time, but, depending on the intonation of the actor here, the joke could simply be that Gregory takes his friend literally. He is partly the butt of Sampson’s jokes, but much of the humour of these lines is that he deliberately misunderstands his friend – who is trying to put across an image of intelligence and tough masculinity.

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William Shakespeare