Notes on Romeo and Juliet
From The Study of Shakespeare by Henry Thew Stephenson, New York: Henry Holy and Co.
In the Tudor Edition of this play the editor discusses the date of its origin, finally assigning it
tentatively, or timidly, perhaps, to 1594 or 1595.
Many critics, however, believe that the present text of
the play is the result of a revision of an earlier version
much of which still remains. In connection with this
point of view two dates are thought of, one earlier and
the other later than that suggested above.
At any rate, parts of the play closely resemble in
style the known early efforts of Shakespeare; and the
stylistic qualities of other parts more nearly resemble
the poet's style of a later date.
There are several other points to be considered. Though a beautiful love story it does not conform to
the rules of dramatic tragedy. This may be due to the fact that it is an early play, written before Shakespeare acquired that technical skill which characterizes his later work. In the following notes another
possibility is hinted at; namely, that the play was
originally written as a tragi-comedy and at a later
date hastily reconstructed into a tragedy.
It will also be noticed that in many of the parts of the play which show evidences of early style, Romeo is
trivial and not over-manly in his behavior; and in the parts whose style resembles that of a later date Romeo
is a far worthier lover of a heroine like Juliet. I venture as a mere suggestion that in the revision of the
play the character of Juliet was completely rewritten. This necessitated the rewriting of many of the Romeo
parts but permitted others to remain unchanged.
II. Notes on the Text
Act I. Prologue. This is a sonnet a characteristic
of Shakespeare's early style in which he resorted to
many forms of verse and stanzas. Note, however,
that the Elizabethans seldom made use of the familiar
rhyme-scheme of the sonnet. The sonnet prologue
appears again before the second act. But there are no
more prologues to the play.
I. i. The first 70 lines of this scene are merely low
comedy. Such continuous word-play is characteristic
of Shakespeare's early style. Find other similar passages throughout the play.
I. i. 72. Enter Tybalt. Though Ben Jonson frequently named characters after their personal qualities, Shakespeare soon gave up the practice. Tybalt means tom-cat; Benvolio, good-fellow or peacemaker;
Mercutio, one of a mercurial disposition.
I. i. 90, etc. Earlier blank verse was more conventional, more sing-song, fuller of pauses at the end
of the line than later blank verse. Compare this passage, written in the earlier style, with the blank
verse of the balcony scene. Find other passages that
illustrate both the earlier and the later forms of verse.
I. i. 121, 122. Repetition of words and phrases is resorted to more often in this play than in any other.
Find illustrations throughout. They occur from first to last, but usually in passages that have other earmarks of early style.
I. i. 177. Note that Romeo is much of a punster in
those scenes which are written in the earlier style.
This quality disappears in the more serious portrayal
of the hero.
I. i. 182, etc. This coupling of opposites, heavy
lightness, cold fire, etc., is another early trait.
By the end of this scene we learn that Romeo is already suffering from the effects of unrequited love.
We are told by critics that this is the most likely condition as a preliminary to love at first sight, and that
Shakespeare here displays his keen knowledge of human nature. However, he overlooked the situation
in regard to Juliet, who fell in love with equal celerity. It is just barely possible that Shakespeare introduced
this detail of Romeo's past merely because it was in the original version of the story, and also afforded an
excellent opportunity for getting started.
I. ii. Compare Capulet's attitude towards Juliet,
as displayed in his conversation with Paris early in
this scene, with his actual behavior later. How is
the contrast to be explained? Is he insincere at
I. iii. Juliet is said by the nurse to be fourteen
years of age. Even after making due allowance for
the earlier maturity of southern girls in olden times
Juliet seems to be more than fourteen years old. This
allusion is probably a remnant of the earlier version.
In the revision, Shakespeare must have had in mind a
woman, not a girl.
I. iv. 2. Apology in this line, Cupid in line 4, without-book prologue in line 7, etc., are references to
masking, a popular form of Elizabethan entertainment.
I. iv. 58. This fairy speech by Mercutio may be
looked upon as one of the formal declamations so
popular in Elizabethan times. Though beautiful
poetry it has no dramatic significance.
I. iv. 106-118. Evidences or indications of a tragic
conclusion are very scarce in the first four acts of
the play. Most of these few are like the passage
cited above; that is, they could have easily been inserted bodily at the time of revision. The tragic element of this play is accidental, not ingrained.
II. i. In the setting on the Elizabethan stage some provision must have been made by which the audience could see both Benvolio and Mercutio on one side, and Romeo on the other. Yet Romeo, who was
near enough to hear what the others said, was invisible to them.
II. ii. 1. The antecedent of "he" is "Mercutio."
The line refers to his jesting of a previous scene.
II. i. This so-called "balcony scene" is not only
one of the most beautifully poetic passages of the
play but of all English literature. The sentiment
is deep and rings true, without the least approach
to sentimentality. It is sufficient, one might almost
say, to wipe out of existence all memory of the crude
touches and inconsistent details that appear elsewhere.
But there is more to the balcony scene than just
this. Heretofore, love-scenes and love-making on the Elizabethan stage had been conventional and sentimental to a high degree. No such genuine passage as this had appeared before the advent Romeo and
Juliet. It is easy to imagine, perhaps it would be
more truthful to say it is difficult to imagine, the enthusiasm of the contemporary audience at the first
reception of this brilliant scene, which, as after events
showed, was but an earnest of what was to come.
II. ii. 63. Recall the deadly feud between the two families. Do not overlook the nerve it required on the part of Romeo to make this dangerous entry into the garden of his family enemies. Later he appears
as a nerveless, puling nonentity whom even the nurse
compares to a foolish woman. This scene is written
in Shakespeare's later style. III. is is written in
his earlier style.
II. iii. Friar Laurence is a purely conventional
character. It is not necessary to study his personality
analytically or to take too seriously his copy-book
phrases of philosophy.
II. iii. 90. Note that Friar Laurence agrees to
marry Romeo and Juliet because he thinks that it
will bring about a reconciliation between the two families. Perhaps this reconciliation was intended to
come about in the earlier version of the play. There
are other evidences of it that will be later pointed
out. The actual conclusion of the present play shows
that it could easily have been accomplished.
II. iv. 222. "The dog's name." That is a growl, the R in Romeo. In Elizabethan pronunciation it
was common to roll the r.
III. i. 65. Note the peaceful rejoinder of Romeo.
The audience understands the ironical significance of
his remarks. But none of the others possess this clue. What ought to be the effect upon his companions of Romeo's peaceful demeanor? Ought they
not all to be surprised, and his partisans chagrined? Yet Mercutio is the only one who shows snch emotion. Is there any indication in this reception of his attitude that this is the kind of behavior to expect
III. i. 127. Compare Romeo's behavior here with
his behavior earlier in the scene, in the balcony scene, and in the friar's cell.
III. ii. The opening speech of Juliet certainly emanates from a woman older than fourteen. And
the smooth pliability of the blank verse is similar to the style of Shakespeare's verse of a date later than that usually assigned to the first draft of the play.
III. ii. 45-50. Note the repetition of I, ay, eye, all
pronounced alike. Note throughout the play the
numerous examples of excessive repetition.
III. ii. 73. Is it natural for Juliet to turn so suddenly against Romeo? What recalls Juliet's loyalty?
(See line 90.)
III. iii. Note the repetition of banished and banishment.
Romeo's behavior in this scene gives no evidence of the nerve that first led him into Capulet's orchard,
or inspired him in the fight with Tybalt. The friar upbraids him for his weakness, and even the nurse
upbraids him for his pusillanimity.
III. iii. 108. Stage direction. Imagine the situation
of the play at this point. The nurse is the typical
comic character throughout. There is an element of
the ludicrous in her attempt to stop Romeo from stabbing himself. One can in this situation hardly be
seriously affected by Romeo's anguish. In his ranting behavior he out-nurses the nurse herself. The
two of them together would be able to make a capital comic scene.
On the other hand, this vein is quite inconsistent with the tone and tenor of a serious tragedy. Is the
true explanation to be found in Shakespeare's inability to portray Romeo here to the same excellent standard reached in some other parts of the play?
There is a third suggestion that is worth a moment's consideration. Mercutio and Tybalt, it is true,
have both been killed. Yet they are minor characters who, though attractive, have not been sufficiently prominent to thoroughly grip our sympathy. Their deaths, Romeo's banishment, and the situation
of Juliet constitute just the sort of complication characteristic of a tragi-comedy. Were the earlier play of
this type, just here is where the resolution would be
likely to begin. That it is expected seems to be very
plainly hinted at in lines 150-155. And what more
likely than the insertion of a scene in a lighter vein
just at the turning-point!
The play preserves all the characteristics of a tragi-comedy until the middle of the last act. Later,
allusion will be made to the sudden and artless manner
by which it is wrested into the path of a tragic conclusion.
III. V. Contrast the general tone of the scene with that of III. iii. Is it similar or different? Is the
opening similar to the rest in this respect?
On the whole I find this a very puzzling scene. In
the first place, look at it seriously for a moment as
a step in the serious development of a tragedy. Juliet is secretly married to the banished Romeo. Her
parents wish to force her into a marriage which can be prevented only by the disclosure of her secret.
Now, is this situation as essentially tragic as usually
represented? In the first place, Romeo is now out
of the Capulet reach. No harm can come to him by
the disclosure. And Juliet could hardly be subjected
to worse treatment than is threatened by her father
for crossing his will. Furthermore, in case she will
not marry Paris she is to be turned into the streets
and left to her own devices. What more could she
desire with a husband waiting, and a willing friar,
for a go-between, who is confident that it will all turn
out well in the end!
In other words, the high-spirited
Juliet could have acknowledged her lover without
injuring him, with hardly a risk of making her own
situation worse than it would be if she persisted in
her refusal to marry Paris without making a full
acknowledgment, and the possibility of righting the
whole situation in the end. And in addition, the reconciliation at the end of the play is due wholly to the
fact that the parents discovered that the two were
lovers and married. The situation in all of its details
is certainly not to the credit of Shakespeare's powers
of invention if we consider it seriously! Nor does it
show any of the skill displayed by him a few years
later as naturally as if it were second nature. However, it must be remembered, on the other hand, that
a few years makes a great difference, and this play
was written before the culmination of Shakespeare's
On the other hand, suppose this to be a scene left
over from, or a part of, an original tragi-comedy. From the former scene the audience has learned through the words of the friar that a reconciliation is not unlikely to take place when the truth is known.
With this cue the audience is prepared to take pleasantly details which are but complications on the surface. The earlier part of the scene contains several remarks from Juliet that have a double meaning. Their wrong interpretation by Lady Capulet must
have caused a smile, to say the least. Then comes Capulet, who, through his overexertion in the matter
of abuse becomes almost comic. And last, the ridiculously impossible solution of the whole matter suggested by the nurse. And the scene ends by Juliet's promise to return to Friar Laurence, the one who
formerly gave the pointed intimation that the play
would end happily. As a scene of this intent it is
much better conceived and carried out than as a tragic
Though I do not wish to insist on the inference here suggested relative to the character of the early draft,
I should like to point out that parts, like this scene, indicate on the part of the writer greater skill in the
lighter vein than in the tragic vein; and that it was not till years later that Shakespeare excelled in the
writing of tragedies. The question remains, if such were the original draft, why did Shakespeare change
it. Perhaps the play was a failure. It must have been both written and rewritten during Shakespeare's
period of experimentation. Perhaps he was just experimenting with tragedy, which he had not attempted
since his passable but not excellent Titus Andronicus.
And the carelessness of the revision is quite consistent
with his methods displayed in his earlier plays.
IV. iii. The apparent comedy outcome is carried on in this scene. The friar suggests a perfectly feasible plan which will solve the present difficulty, dependent only upon Juliet's will and courage to carry it out. She has both, and departs in good spirits.
By all customary standards the preparation and foreshadowing of the scene can suggest to the audience
nothing but a happy resolution at the end.
IV. iii. 10. Note that Capulet's stormy scene and
Juliet's refusal to marry Paris has caused no interruption in Capulet's plans for the wedding.
IV. iii. 14. There has been nothing said or done
to arouse on the part of the audience any distrust of
the friar. Nor has anything occurred to justify such
a thought in the mind of Juliet. Her present thoughts
are due entirely to the exigencies of the present moment. The audience would certainly share her fears
and terrors, for it is a courageous and mysterious act
she is about to perform. But the sympathy of the
audience would be tempered by the certainty that her
fears were groundless.
As the act closes, everything seems to be carrying
out the friar's plot to a satisfactory conclusion. There
is as yet no sign of the coming tragedy.
At the opening of act V we find that Romeo hears
the news of Juliet's death before he gets the friar's
letter explaining that it is a sham. Trouble may
come of this, but the audience does not expect it: -- for two reasons: 1. The passage is preceded by a bit
of happy foreshadowing. 2. Romeo postpones killing
himself out of misery till he gets to Juliet's grave.
There is every chance for him to be disillusioned at
this point. This looks very like a device to make his
happiness the more complete as it is the more unexpected.
There are two conditions universally acknowledged as necessary to a tragic development of the plot: -- 1. The story and its development should be incapable from the beginning of straying from the path that
leads to a tragic conclusion. 2. That the tragic ending should depend upon events related to each other
by the law of cause and effect. If the story is plotted in defiance of either of these rules it lacks
excellence to just that extent.
V. ii. 4. Here we find the first step or detail of the tragic conclusion. The fact that so much of this play could be discussed as above, as if it were a tragi-comedy, is a gross violation of rule 1.
The failure of the friar's letter to reach its destination is an equally gross violation of rule 2. In the
first place, the miscarriage of the letter is due to the merest accident. Why did not Brother John deliver
the letter at once instead of getting himself quarantined on the way? If one explains this on the
ground that friars had to travel in pairs, and that Brother John perforce had to find a companion, and
was as likely as not to pick up one with a contagious
disease, matters are not much bettered. Why did
Laurence send John at all? The letter by all indications should have gone by Balthasar. At III. iii. 170 the friar, when sending Romeo to Mantua, says that he will use Balthasar to carry letters to Romeo.
And when Balthasar enters (V. i. 11) Romeo is surprised that his man does not bring a letter from Friar
In other words, in order to bring about a tragic conclusion, Shakespeare made the friar drop his customary channel of communication, which would inevitably have prevented the final catastrophe, and select
another messenger, which device by the merest accident turns a good comedy ending into a poor tragic
As I said above, it is a mere inference, a mere
guess, that the first draft of this play was in reality
a tragi-comedy, converted by a hasty revision into
a tragedy. Whether this is true or not is a matter of
no considerable importance. I have used this idea
merely to illustrate the fact that four acts of Romeo
and Juliet constitute part of a splendid tragi-comedy,
light-hearted, joyous in spite of the early deaths of
Tybalt and Mercutio. The effect of the play with
its beautiful poetry would have been, had the end prepared for been written, as delightfully pleasant as
Cymbeline or The Tempest, But if, from the nature
of its end, we are compelled to examine it as a tragedy,
we find its structure bad, the invention poor, and in
no way deserving to rank with the great series of
tragedies that began with Julius Caesar.
Scene iii. contains the tragic conclusion. In this
scene the audience experiences three painful and unexpected shocks:
1. The audience, it seems to me, is fully prepared
by numerous hints for a happy conclusion, the resolution which does not come. With the example of a
fake drug administered to Juliet, and a knowledge that Friar John is on his way to the tomb, or soon
will be, and that Juliet is about to awake -- all this
taken together renders the actual death of Romeo like
a bolt out of a clear sky.
2. The second shock is due to the death of Juliet,
emphasized by the fact that she overslept herself by
just a moment, and that the friar was also late by
just a moment. Had Romeo been subjected to any
little delay, accidental in nature, such as seems to
have overtaken all the others, the day would still have
3. The third shock is the fact that Friar Laurence's prophecy of a peaceable reconciliation (III.
iii. 151) was true, but delayed till after the death of
Romeo and Juliet. What after all reconciled the two
houses of Capulet and Montague? It was not the
murder of Paris, nor the death of the lovers, nor
even the command of the prince which had been ineffective before, but a knowledge of the fact that Romeo
and Juliet loved each other, and were man and wife.
Does it not seem as if the final result would have
come about had Juliet courageously disclosed her marriage when Paris was first urged upon her?
How to cite this article:
Stephenson, Henry Thew. The Study of Shakespeare. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1915. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/romeoandjuliet/howtostudyromeo.html >.
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