The sixteen-year-old son of Montague and Lady
Montague. He is cousins with Benvolio, and friends with
Mercutio and Friar Laurence. Romeo’s defining characteristic
is the intensity of his emotions—whether in anger, love,
or despair. Romeo is also intelligent, quick-witted, loved by
his friends, and not a bad swordsmen. Over the course of the
play, Romeo grows from a an adolescent who claims to be in
love with Rosaline, but in reality seems more in love with the
idea of love and with being a miserable wretch in the mold of
classical love poets, to a young man who shares a deep and
passionate love with Juliet and is willing to face the obstacles
of friends, family, the law, fate, and, ultimately, death in order
to be with her.
The beautiful thirteen-year-old daughter of Capulet
and Lady Capulet, and cousins with Tybalt. The Nurse is
her closest friend and advisor. Juliet is naïve and sheltered at
the beginning of the play, and has given almost no thought to
love. But as soon as she meets and falls in love with Romeo
she quickly develops into a woman of remarkable strength and
resolve in pursuing what she wants. Like Romeo, she is willing
to face all obstacles of society, fate, and death to be with her
love. Yet even while head over heels in love, Juliet remains
more grounded than Romeo. She even calls him on his silliness
when he gets overly poetic. It seems possible to attribute
much of Romeo’s transformation from a callous youth to a
passionate lover to Juliet’s influence.
The Nurse is a servant who nursed Juliet as a
baby (the Nurse’s own baby died just before Juliet was born),
and raised her through childhood. She is Juliet’s best friend
and confidante, and in many ways is more her mother than
Lady Capulet is. The Nurse can be quite sentimental, but also
tends to go on and on with bawdy and sometimes embarrassing
stories. Though the Nurse will do anything for Juliet, and
helps Juliet to marry Romeo, in the end she proves herself to
be pragmatic when it comes to love.
Romeo’s close friend, and a kinsmen of Prince
Escalus. Mercutio is a wild, antic, and brooding youth. He is
a whiz with wordplay and is constantly dropping sexual puns,
but beneath this playful and sarcastic veneer lies a bitter
world-weariness. Mercutio hates romantic ideals of any sort,
whether about honor or love, and mercilessly mocks those
who hold them.
A Franciscan monk and a friend to both
Romeo and Juliet. He preaches moderation because he understands
that intensity of any kind of emotion, good or bad,
can lead to disaster. Yet he gets caught up in his own hope
for ending the feud between Montagues and Capulets. In the
process, he shows himself to be quite a schemer.
The nephew of Capulet, and Juliet’s cousin. A
hothead consumed by issues of honor and well known for his
skill with a sword, Tybalt hates the Montagues with a profound
passion. He seems to look for excuses to fight
Montague’s nephew, Romeo’s cousin., and
Mercutio’s friend. Of the three boys, he is the most calm and
the least quick-witted. On a few occasions he tries to keep the
peace rather than fight. Yet Benvolio is seldom successful in
his peacekeeping efforts, and will fight if pushed.
A young woman who has taken a vow of chastity,
yet with whom Romeo is infatuated at the beginning of
A kinsman of Prince Escalus who wants to marry
Juliet. Paris is a good-looking and wealthy man, but is rather
pompous, a tad boring, and lacks Romeo’s passion. His love for
Juliet seems genuine, but, like Capulet, he seems to think he
can make Juliet’s decisions for her.
Love in Romeo and Juliet is not some pretty, idealized emotion.
Yes, the love Romeo and Juliet share is beautiful and passionate.
It is pure, exhilarating, and transformative, and they
are willing to give everything to it. But it is also chaotic and destructive,
bringing death to friends, family, and to themselves.
Over and over in the play, Romeo and Juliet’s love is mentioned
in connection with death and violence, and finds it’s greatest
expression in their suicide.
The theme of love in Romeo and Juliet also extends beyond
the love that Romeo and Juliet feel for each other. All the characters
in the play constantly talk about love. Mercutio thinks love
is little more than an excuse to pursue sexual pleasure and that
it makes a man weak and dumb. Lady Capulet thinks love is
based on material things: Paris is handsome and wealthy; therefore
Lady Capulet believes Juliet will love him. Lord Capulet
sees love as obedience and duty. Friar Laurence knows that
love may be passionate, but argues that it’s also a responsibility.
Paris seems to think that love is at his command, since he tells
Juliet that she loves him. In short, love is everywhere in Romeo
and Juliet, and everyone sees it differently.
From the opening prologue when the Chorus summarizes
Romeo and Juliet and says that the “star-crossed lovers” will
die, Romeo and Juliet are trapped by fate. No matter what the
lovers do, what plans they make, or how much they love each
other, their struggles against fate only help fulfill it. But defeating
or escaping fate is not the point. No one escapes fate. It
is Romeo and Juliet’s determination to struggle against fate in
order to be together, whether in life or death, that shows the
fiery passion of their love, and which makes that love eternal.
Fate is not just a force felt by the characters in Romeo
and Juliet. The audience also senses it through Shakespeare’s
use of foreshadowing. Time and again, both Romeo and Juliet
unknowingly reference their imminent deaths, as when Juliet
says after first meeting Romeo: “If he be married / My grave
is like to be my wedding bed.” She means that if Romeo is
already married she’ll be miserable. But the audience knows
that Juliet’s grave actually will be her wedding bed. In Romeo
and Juliet, fate is a force that neither the characters nor the
audience can escape, and so every word and gesture gains in
power, becomes fateful.
Individuals Vs. SOciety
Because of their forbidden love, Romeo and Juliet are forced
into conflict with the social world around them: family, friends,
political authority, and even religion. The lovers try to avoid this
conflict by hiding, by escaping from it. They prefer the privacy
of nighttime to the public world of day. They volunteer to give
up their names, their social identities, in order to be together.
They begin to keep secrets and speak in puns so that they can
publicly say one thing while meaning another. On the morning
after their marriage, they even go so far as to pretend that day
is night so they won’t have to part.
But no one can stop day from dawning, and in the end
Romeo and Juliet can’t escape the responsibilities of the public
world. Romeo tries to stop being a Montague and avoid fighting
Tybalt, but fails. Juliet tries to stop being a Capulet and to
stand up to her father when he tries to marry her off to Paris,
but is abandoned by her mother and the Nurse. Romeo is banished
from Verona by Prince Escalus, who embodies political
law. Finally, to preserve their love, Romeo and Juliet are forced
to the ultimate act of independence and privacy: suicide.
Language and word play
Romeo and Juliet constantly play with language. They pun,
rhyme, and speak in double entendres. All these word games
may seem like mere fun, and they are fun. The characters that
pun and play with language have fun doing it. But word play
in Romeo and Juliet has a deeper purpose: rebellion. Romeo
and Juliet play with language to escape the world. They claim
they are not a Montague and a Capulet; they use words to try
to transform day, for a moment, into night; they hide their love
even while secretly admitting it. Other characters play with
language too. In particular, Mercutio and the Nurse make
constant sexual puns implying that while everyone is running
around talking about high ideals like honor and love, sex and
other base desires are at the root of human existence.
So language in Romeo and Juliet serves two opposing
purposes. It allows some characters to escape the world into
intense love, while it allows other characters to reveal that the
world of love, honor, and high ideals are just masks people use
to cover their animal instincts
For a play about the two noble teenagers struggling to preserve
their forbidden love, Romeo and Juliet sure has a lot of
scenes focused on servants and non-nobles. Shakespeare did
this by design. The recurring presence of servants in the play,
from Peter, the Capulet servant who can’t read, to the apothecary
who’s so poor he’s willing to sell poison, Shakespeare in
Romeo and Juliet goes to great efforts to show that the poor
and downtrodden have lives of their own, and that to them
Romeo and Juliet’s love and death mean absolutely nothing.
After all, why would the death of two noble teenagers mean
anything to servants just trying to make it through the day and
scrounge up something to eat for dinner?