Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
Of the many tragic heroes of Shakespeare, Romeo continues to exercise a peculiar fascination over the minds of young men and women. He stands out as the emblem of youthful love, its disappointment, and its possibility for tragedy.
Romeo is the only son of Lord Montague, the head of a reputed and rich family of Verona that is plagued by its longstanding feud with the Capulet family. In the first scenes, Romeo appears indifferent to his family’s feud. His only concern is his love for Rosaline, a love, which is overwhelming, but artificial. Romeo is really in love with the idea of love. When he does not receive love in return, he grows melancholy and brooding. Even his friend Benvolio cannot distract him.
At the Capulet dance, Romeo meets the beautiful Juliet. Rosaline is quickly forgotten, and Romeo is transformed from a brooding youth that talks about love to a young man who is capable of quick, decisive action. In truth, “the gentle lamb” turns into a “passionate lover”. Romeo’s deep feelings for Juliet, who ironically and tragically is a Capulet, are very different from the shallow love he has felt for other woman, including Rosaline. This genuine love makes him bold, and he is prepared to take any risk for Juliet. He bravely goes into her garden after the party, even though he chances being caught and punished. His risk is repaid when he hears Juliet express her love for him as well. They pledge themselves to one another and make plans to marry the next day. Friar Lawrence performs the marriage ceremony for the couple, hoping in so doing to unite their two families.
Romeo’s love for Juliet softens him towards all Capulets. In fact, when Tybalt insults him, Romeo keeps his cool and does not respond. Instead, Mercutio is provoked to fight Tybalt and is killed. Romeo feels he has no choice; his friend must be avenged. He fights Tybalt, kills him, and flees to take refuge in the cell of Friar Lawrence. There he learns he has been banished from Verona and must leave Juliet. The thought of being separated from his bride drives Romeo into such depression that he tries to take his own life. Friar Lawrence counsels Romeo he must learn patience. Unfortunately, he never does.
Romeo is, indeed, young, inexperienced, hasty, and impatient. Upon first sight, he immediately falls in love with Juliet, but it is a much deeper and more genuine love than he has ever known. In haste, he also arranges his marriage to her, the very same night he meets her; the marriage is planned for the next day. In the same manner, when he hears of Juliet’s death from Balthazar, he purchases a powerful poison and kills himself without a second thought. Had Romeo only acted with a little more caution and deliberation, his tragic ending could have been prevented. Because of this incredible love for Juliet and desire to be with her for eternity, Romeo has been identified as one of the world’s greatest lovers.
Shakespeare is said to have created a masterpiece in the development of the character of Juliet. Her exquisite beauty and personal charms are amongst the finest in literature. In describing Juliet, Romeo captures the depth of her loveliness. “Juliet is the sun and the brightness of her cheek would shame the stars.”
Juliet, who is almost fourteen years old, is the only child of the Capulets. She is blissfully ignorant of the ways of the world, and at the beginning of the play turns to her Nurse for guidance and advice. As the play develops and Juliet becomes the wife of Romeo, she quickly matures into a new person who can think for herself and stand on her own. She openly defies the Nurse and her parents. She screams at the Nurse, “Go Counselor,” and boldly resists her parents’ decision for her to marry Paris. Love has truly transformed her.
Juliet is an innocent who has never even been in love until she meets Romeo. When she falls in love with Romeo, a Montague, she cannot begin to fathom the consequences of her action. She can only totally surrender to the man who worships her. On the balcony, she almost swoons before him. Later, she feels embarrassed that she has been so immodest in revealing the depths of her sentiments to Romeo. Once she is convinced of his sincerity, however, she regains control and begins to show practicality and decisiveness. Once they are pledged to each other, she instructs Romeo to make arrangements with the Friar for marrying them. The misfortunes that follow the wedding truly test her youthful capabilities, but she rises to each occasion.
After Romeo is exiled, she plans how Romeo can come into her chamber to consummate the marriage. At the Friar’s advice, she successfully pretends to her parents that she will marry Paris. She is so well able to disguise her feelings that she not only outwits her parents but also the Nurse. In spite of her fears about being in a tomb, she drinks the potion that will make her appear dead. When she awakes from her trance and sees her dead husband at her side, she decisively picks up his dagger and kills herself. The power of love transformed her from a submissive child to the height of womanhood.
Mercutio, whose name suggests his mercurial character, is a relative of the Prince and a man of rank. He mixes with people from both enemy houses and is an adult friend of Romeo. He serves as a foil to Romeo as well. His sarcasm, scorn of love, and interest in dueling are exactly the opposite of the sincerity, passion, and pacifism of Romeo. Mercutio also possesses a deep wit; although he is disposed to laugh away the woes of others, he is still interested in people in a congenial way.
Early in the play, Mercutio ridicules Romeo’s love for Rosaline, to the point of coarseness. He speaks with irony in referring to Romeo’s other loves and makes light of premonitions, dreams, and sentimentality, especially Romeo’s. He derides sham and pretension, yet he delights in puns and twisting the meaning of words. His Queen Mab speech is delightful, although somewhat out of character.
Mercutio is a skillful duelist. When Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt after being insulted by him, Mercutio decides to fight with Tybalt himself, which sets the pattern of tragedy in motion for the rest of the play. Because Romeo tries to stop the duel and gets in the way, Mercutio is mortally wounded in the duel. Even as he is dying, Mercutio is witty and makes light of his wounds even though he knows they are fatal. As a result, Romeo must defend the honor of his dead friend and slays Tybalt. Mercutio, therefore, serves as comic relief and as a catalyst to the action of the entire play.
Benvolio is Romeo’s cousin and close friend and Lord Montague`s nephew. His name, Benvolio, means well wishing, which is reflective of his character throughout the play. In the very first scene, Benvolio establishes himself as a peacemaker as he tries to stop the fight between Abraham and Samson. He also means well by Romeo and tries to prod him out of his romantic dreams about Rosaline through gentle reproof. He encourages Romeo to go to the Capulet party, for it will be an opportunity for him to see Verona beauties other than osaline. At the party, Romeo does spy another beauty that makes him forget Rosaline, just as Benvolio had hoped; unfortunately, it will be a tragic love affair between Romeo and Juliet. Although not directly, Benvolio does much to propel the action forward in the play.
Benvolio is again pictured as the peacemaker after the Capulet party. Before Romeo joins them, he urges Mercutio to withdraw from the street before the Capulets find them. When Tybalt arrives and draws his sword to fight Romeo, he begs them to settle the quarrel with a quiet talk. He stands helpless when Tybalt kills Mercutio and Romeo kills Tybalt. At that moment, he advises Romeo to seek safety in hiding. When the Prince asks for an explanation of the fighting, Benvolio tells him how Romeo had done his utmost to prevent the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio and how he himself had tried to stop Romeo and Tybalt from fighting. He disappears from the play after these failures, for fate has now taken over and he can serve no purpose against it.