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Romeo and Juliet is one of the most frequently performed Shakespearean plays. So much so, the lovers in the play have become archetypal stereotypes. Romeo and Juliet is set against a back-drop of Italy. Shakespeare admitted to developing the existent story lines of 'The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet' written in 1562, by Arthur Brooke and 'Palace of Pleasure' written in 1582, by William Painter. Shakespeare developed a number of supporting characters to expand the synchronized plot and released the first quarto version in the year 1597.

The Characters

From the House of Capulet
  • Juliet
  • Capulet
  • Capulet's wife
  • Tybalt
  • The Nurse
From the House of Montague
  • Romeo
  • Montague
  • Montague's wife
  • Benvolio
From the House of Verona
  • Prince Escalus
  • Count Paris
  • Mercutio
Others
  • Friar Laurence
  • Friar John
  • An Apothecary

The Story

The story revolves around three families from Verona. The Ruling House, the House of Capulet from where Juliet hails and that of Montague, the male protagonist's family. The story commences with a street brawl fired by the feud between the Montague and Capulet families. When the Prince of Verona announces that any further feud would result in punishment, Count Paris of the ruling house expresses his desire to marry Juliet, from the House of Capulet, who is only thirteen.

Meanwhile, after the brawl, Benvolio learns about Romeo's lost-love Rosaline, one of Lord Capulet's nieces. The estranged meeting between Romeo and Juliet takes place at the ball arranged for Count Paris to meet Juliet. Romeo meets and falls head-over-heels in love with Juliet. Romeo discloses his identity to her on being 'encouraged in love'. They seek the support of Friar Laurence, who longs for a reconciliation between the two families and are secretly married. Tybalt, Juliet's cousin challenges Romeo to a duel on discovering that he had sneaked into the ball. However, because of Juliet, Romeo refuses to fight him and calls on the ire of Mercutio, who accepts the duel instead of Romeo.

When Mercutio is wounded in the duel, Romeo slays Tybalt and is exiled for the latter's death. Juliet's grief is worsened when Lord Capulet makes plans for her wedding with Count Paris. She seeks a help from Friar Laurence. The plan they come up with is that Juliet would consume a drug that would take her into a coma for nearly three hours. Romeo was to be informed of the plan via a messenger, who doesn't reach him in time. On the eve of her marriage to Count Paris, Juliet takes the drug and is declared dead.

Romeo hears about her 'death' and buys poison before visiting the family crypt. Fate has other plans as Paris encounters Romeo and is killed by the latter. Believing that his lady-love is dead, Romeo drinks the poison. When Juliet awakes to discover Romeo's corpse, she stabs herself. The families meet at the tomb and hear the story of the lovers from the friar. They reconcile and the violent feud is declared over.

Motifs and Themes

It is extremely difficult to assign one specific theme to the play, yet there have been various attempts by experts to find a common thread through the play. This play is sometimes considered to be emblematic of young lovers and doomed love. It is also often argued that this play equates love and sex with death. Throughout the story all the characters fantasize about death, equating it with a lover. Some scholars see the role of fate in the play whereas some see it as a series of unlucky chances and even to an extent an emotional melodrama. Another supposedly central theme of this play is about time or rather the hastiness to make love last. The plays characters frequently refer to days of the week and specific hours to help the audience understand that time has passed.

Legacy

Shakespearean traits such as a shocking switch between tragedy and comedy, elaborate back-drops and various minor characters, make the main plot and sub-plots praiseworthy. Romeo and Juliet has made it to the big screen as well as the stage a number of times. It has attracted musical and opera audiences with the mesmerizing sonnets and montage scenes. Elizabethan costumes embellish the stage settings and heighten the drama and verse.

Along with Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare's most-performed plays and also one of the first Shakespearean plays to have been performed outside England. Over the centuries this play has been adapted and reworked sometimes to suit audiences or to appear contemporary with the times. The legacy of this play in the music world can be seen in at least 24 operas which have been based on Romeo and Juliet. Numerous art works and paintings depicting scenes from this play have been produced ever since the play became popular around 400 years back. Romeo and Juliet also remains the most filmed play of all time, with numerous films and TV adaptations as well. Its lasting impact and legacy can be summed up by the fact that the word "Romeo" has even become synonymous with "male lover" in English.

The exact date when William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet remains unknown. Though there is mention about an 'earthquake 11 years ago', the dialog highlights the earthquake in England in 1580. Hence, the popular belief is that the play was written in 1591. The dramatic techniques, paradigm shifts from hope to despair and then again rejuvenated hope adds emotion to the verse and strain of thought in prologue.