Romeo and Juliet is one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays and arguably the most well-known of his tragedies. It is the story of the two title characters that fall in love unexpectedly even though they are members of two families, or houses, that hate each other. Their families have an old grudge against one another that has made them bitter enemies, so the love between Romeo and Juliet is forbidden. Rather than bring the two families closer together, Romeo and Juliet’s love for one another drives the two families farther apart and eventually results in the death of the two lovers. It is a tale of both political drama and tragic romance.
From the beginning of the play, the reader is aware that the two families, the Capulets and the Motagues, hate each other. This is seen in the play’s first act when Benvolio, a Montague, and Tybalt, a member of the Capulet family, fight each other. The two are ready to fight to the death in the name of family honor, a foreshadowing that will be made clear later in the play. After they are ordered to stop Benvolio talks to Romeo, his cousin, and it is learned that Romeo thinks he’s in love with Rosaline but she doesn’t love him. This sets the stage for further trouble between the two families and for Romeo to find someone to fill the void in his life without Rosaline. Romeo seems emotional and seeking love, which will come to him in the form of his chance meeting with Juliet.
Paris is another figure that complicates the situation between Romeo and Juliet. Paris wants to marry Juliet and is admired by Juliet’s father but her father also thinks she’s too young to get married because she’s just fourteen. Romeo and Juliet later meet at the masquerade ball Juliet’s father holds in Paris’ honor. Romeo and Juliet are in different positions in regards to the hatred between their families. Romeo is a man and is expected to fight for his family’s honor. But Juliet is a woman and is therefore expected to stay out of any political situations involving the family. She also has no freedom regarding who she marries, unlike Romeo who can choose for himself. These elements further complicate the love between them.
Romeo and Juliet meet after her father has arranged her marriage to Paris and Romeo has given up on Rosaline. Romeo and his cousins Benvolio and Mercutio crash the masquerade feast even though Romeo says he thinks the evening will end badly, possibly with someone’s death. Once inside, Romeo finally sees Juliet across the room and loves her instantly. They kiss but don’t remove their masks so they don’t recognize each other or realize that they are from the fighting families. Juliet later finds out from her nurse that Romeo is a Montague and she is upset at this news, but still loves him. Romeo later climbs up to Juliet’s balcony and tells her he loves her and wants to marry her. He leaves intending to find a monk that will marry them in secret. The next day he enlists the help of Friar Lawrence who is concerned that Romeo’s love and affection has gone quickly from Rosaline to Juliet, but he agrees to marry them anyway in the hops that the marriage will end the fighting between their two families. Juliet’s nurse also agrees to help the two by rigging a rope ladder for Romeo to climb into Juliet’s room after they are married, although she also expresses concerns about Romeo’s true feelings for Juliet.
When Romeo’s cousins Benvolio and Mercutio discuss their negative feelings for Rosaline, Benvolio reveals that he intercepted a letter from Tybalt challenging Romeo to a swordfight. Mercutio feels that Tybalt is more concerned with fashion than honor and expresses hatred for him. He also thinks that Romeo’s love for first Rosaline and now Juliet has made him weak, indicating that Mercutio feels that family honor is more important than being true to one’s own emotions.
Romeo and Juliet are wed in secret by Friar Lawrence. The friar warns them to not act too boldly and reminds them that they could encounter trouble because of the dangerous hatred between their two families, but they are in love and don’t pay any attention to his warning. Later, Benvolio and Mercutio encounter Tybalt, and then Romeo arrives. Tybalt tries to fight Romeo, but Romeo feels that Tybalt is family now and won’t fight him, asking Tybalt to talk to him instead. Mercutio steps in and antagonizes Tybalt into a fight. Tybalt stabs Mercutio, who curses both the houses of Montague and Capulet as he dies. Romeo decides in his grief that he was wrong to let Mercutio fight for him, so he fights Tybalt and kills him. Afterward, he runs away and is exiled from the city.
Juliet’s nurse tells her what has happened and that she knows where Romeo is hiding. Meanwhile, her father agrees to move up her marriage to Paris to two days from then. At the same time, Friar Lawrence agrees to arrange for Romeo to spend the night with Romeo, then hide Romeo in Mantua and announce his marriage to Juliet. Romeo and Juliet spend the night together, after which Romeo flees and Juliet’s mother tells her about the marriage plans with Paris. Juliet decides that if no one will help her be with Romeo that she will take her own life.
Juliet asks the friar for help and he forms a plan in which she will consent to marry Paris then take a sleeping potion that will make her appear dead. The friar will have her laid in the Capulet tomb and fetch Romeo so that Romeo can take her away when she wakes up. She agrees to the plan, but later reveals that she’s afraid Romeo won’t come for her or that she’ll really die. She drinks the potion and is found the next morning by the nurse. Romeo is later told by a friend that she is dead and in his grief he buys poison and travels back to Verona to kill himself. Paris finds Romeo trying to enter Juliet’s tomb and the two fight because Paris thinks Romeo has come to dishonor Juliet’s corpse. Romeo stabs Paris, but consents to Paris’s dying wish to be laid next to Juliet. After laying Paris to rest, Romeo kisses Juliet, drinks the poison and dies. Juliet awakes to find Paris and Romeo both dead. She tries to drink poison from Romeo’s vial but there is none left, so she takes his knife and stabs herself. After their bodies are discovered the Montagues and Capulets agree to erect memorial statues for each of them and to not fight anymore.
Shakespeare presents a tragedy in which it took the death of two young people for their families to realize the meaninglessness of their feud. It was their suicides that made their parents wake up and see what was really important. The fact that they weren’t able to be together made them kill themselves. As a result, they helped bring about a change that could have caused their love to be permitted. They were kept apart by a feud that was not their doing, and it was only the tragic consequences of their love that ended that feud and brought peace once and for all.