What Happens in Romeo and Juliet?

Two star-crossed lovers fall hopelessly in love despite the heated feud between their families, the Montagues and the Capulets. Romeo first meets Juliet at a ball hosted by her father, Lord Capulet.

  • After the ball, Romeo and Juliet meet on her balcony, where they swear undying love to each other. With the aid of Friar Laurence, the lovers are secretly married the next day.
  • Juliet's hotheaded cousin Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel. Romeo declines, not wanting to fight Juliet's kin. Romeo's friend Mercutio takes his place in the duel and is killed. Enraged, Romeo slays Tybalt. For this offense, the Prince of Verona banishes Romeo from the city.
  • Meanwhile, Lord Capulet has arranged for Juliet to marry Paris, unaware of her marriage to Romeo. Juliet seeks the help of Friar Laurence, who gives her a sleeping potion that mimics death. He assures her that Romeo will be waiting for her when she wakes up in the family tomb, but Romeo never gets the message. He drinks poison in her tomb. Upon waking to find Romeo dead, Juliet stabs herself with his dagger.

Introduction

A perennial staple of high school English classes, Romeo and Juliet was written by Shakespeare at a relatively early juncture in his literary career, most probably in 1594 or 1595. During much of the twentieth century, critics tended to disparage this play in comparison to the four great tragedies that Shakespeare wrote in the first decade of the seventeenth century (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello). Appraised next to the Bard's mature works, Romeo and Juliet appears to lack the psychological depth and the structural complexity of Shakespeare's later tragedies. But over the past three decades or so, many scholars have altered this assessment, effectively upgrading its status within Shakespeare's canon. They have done this by discarding comparative evaluation and judging Romeo and Juliet as a work of art in its own right.

Viewed from this fresh perspective, Shakespeare's tragic drama of the "star-crossed" young lovers is seen to be an extraordinary work. Indeed, Romeo and Juliet was an experimental stage piece at the time of its composition, featuring several radical departures from long-standing conventions. These innovative aspects of the play, moreover, reinforce and embellish its principal themes. The latter include the antithesis between love and hate, the correlative use of a light/dark polarity, the handling of time (as both theme and as structural element), and the prominent status accorded to Fortune and its expression in the dreams, omens and forebodings that presage its tragic conclusion.

Synopsis

The play opens on the streets of Verona, Italy, as a fight breaks out between the servants of two powerful rival families: the Capulets and the Montagues. Benvolio Montague attempts to break up the fight but is thwarted by the hotheaded Tybalt Capulet, who attacks Benvolio. Finally, Prince Escalus appears and breaks up the brawl, condemning the families for allowing their long-standing feud to incite violence yet again. The Prince warns that if anyone from either family disturbs the peace again, they will be killed. After the brawl, Romeo Montague and his cousin Benvolio hear about a ball being thrown by Lord Capulet later that night. Benvolio urges Romeo to attend and hopes that the party will take Romeo’s mind off of Rosaline, his unrequited love.

Romeo and Benvolio attend the ball with their friend Mercutio, a relative of Prince Escalus. At the ball, Romeo meets Juliet Capulet, and unaware that they belong to rival families, they immediately fall in love. Tybalt Capulet sees Romeo at the ball and realizes he’s a Montague in disguise. Though Lord Capulet prevents Tybalt from starting a fight then and there, Tybalt vows to get revenge on Romeo for this trespass. After discovering each other’s true identities, the lovers are initially upset. However, Romeo comes to Juliet’s window later that night, and declaring their love for one another, they decide to pursue their relationship regardless of the feud. Romeo confides in Friar Laurence about his and Juliet’s forbidden love, and the Friar agrees to perform a secret wedding ceremony in the hope that their marriage may bring about the end of the feud.

After the wedding ceremony, Romeo is confronted by Tybalt, who challenges him to a duel. Romeo, not wishing to fight one of his new wife’s relatives, refuses to fight. Mercutio, interpreting Romeo’s reluctance to fight as a sign of cowardice, steps in and begins to fight Tybalt in Romeo’s place. Romeo unsuccessfully attempts to break up the fight, and Tybalt kills Mercutio. Enraged by the death of his friend, Romeo turns on Tybalt and kills him. Realizing what he has done, Romeo runs to Friar Laurence for help. The Prince banishes Romeo from Verona for his part in the fighting and declares that Romeo will be killed if he is found within the city. Juliet is distraught when she hears of Romeo’s banishment, but with the help of Juliet’s Nurse and Friar Laurence, the two lovers are able to consummate their marriage before Romeo must flee to the nearby city of Mantua.

Unaware that his daughter has secretly married the son of his rival, Lord Capulet makes arrangements for Juliet to marry the County Paris, a handsome and well-connected young man. When Juliet tries to refuse the match, Lord Capulet threatens to disown her. Distraught, Juliet turns to Friar Laurence for advice, vowing that she would rather kill herself than marry another man while her husband lives. Friar Laurence concocts an elaborate scheme to fake Juliet’s death: He gives Juliet a potion that will make her appear dead for forty-two hours. When the Capulets find Juliet’s (apparently) dead body, they will place her open casket in the family tomb. The Friar will send word to Romeo of their plan, and then he and Romeo will wait in the tomb for Juliet to awaken. When she does, Romeo will take her back to Mantua with him. Juliet takes the potion later that night, and all goes to plan when her family finds her apparently dead the next morning. However, due to an unfortunate turn of events, word of the Friar’s plan never reaches Romeo.

In Mantua, Romeo hears from a servant that Juliet has died, and determined to join her in death, he purchases poison and travels back to Verona. When he arrives at Juliet’s tomb, Romeo runs into Paris, who is mourning Juliet. Unaware of the relationship between Romeo and Juliet, Paris assumes that Romeo is merely a Montague trying to defile the Capulet graves. Paris challenges Romeo to a duel, and Romeo reluctantly fights and kills him. Entering the tomb, Romeo sees Juliet, who is still in her death-like sleep. He kisses her one last time before drinking the poison and dying. The Friar arrives after realizing that his letter never reached Romeo, and he is shocked to see the bodies of Paris and Romeo in the tomb. Just then, Juliet wakes up from her sleep. Knowing that the city watchmen are on their way, the Friar urges Juliet to flee the scene. Juliet refuses to leave and the Friar runs from the tomb. Alone, Juliet kisses Romeo in the hopes that the poison he drank will kill her too. When that fails, she grabs a dagger and stabs herself just before the watchmen enter the tomb.

The chief watchman summons Prince Escalus, the Montagues, and the Capulets to the tomb. Friar Laurence explains the story of Romeo and Juliet’s secret love to all present. The Prince declares that this tragedy is heaven’s way of punishing the two families for their hatred. The Prince adds that he, too, has been punished for allowing the feud to continue—now, his kinsmen Mercutio and Paris lay dead. Devastated by the loss of their respective children, the Capulets and the Montagues reconcile their differences and end the feud once and for all.

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In Verona, Italy, there live two famous families, the Montagues and the Capulets. These two houses are deadly enemies, and their enmity does not stop at harsh words, but extend to bloody duels. Romeo, son of old Montague, thinks himself in love with haughty Rosaline, a beautiful girl who does not return his affection. Hearing that Rosaline is to attend a great feast at the house of Capulet, Romeo and his trusted friend, Mercutio, don masks and enter the great hall of their enemy as guests. Romeo is no sooner in the ballroom than he notices the exquisite Juliet, Capulet’s daughter, and instantly forgets his disdainful Rosaline. Romeo never saw Juliet before, and in asking her name he arouses the suspicion of Tybalt, a fiery member of the Capulet clan. Tybalt draws his sword and faces Romeo. Old Capulet, coming upon the two men, parts them, and with the gentility that comes with age requests that they have no bloodshed at the feast. Tybalt, however, is angered that a Montague should take part in Capulet festivities and afterward nurses a grudge against Romeo.

Romeo goes to Juliet, speaks in urgent courtliness to her, and asks if he might kiss her hand. She gives her permission, much impressed by this unknown gentleman whose affection for her is so evident. Romeo then begs to kiss her lips, and when she has no breath to object, he presses her to him. They are interrupted by Juliet’s nurse, who sends the young girl off to her mother. When she goes, Romeo learns from the nurse that Juliet is a Capulet. He is stunned, for he is certain that this fact will mean his death. He can never give her up. Juliet, who fell instantly in love with Romeo, discovers that he is a Montague, the son of a hated house.

That night Romeo, too much in love to go home to sleep, steals to Juliet’s house and stands in the orchard beneath a balcony that leads to her room. To his surprise, he sees Juliet leaning over the railing above him. Thinking herself alone, she begins to talk of Romeo and wishes aloud that he were not a Montague. Hearing her words, Romeo can contain himself no longer, but speaks to her. She is frightened at first, and when she sees who it is she is confused and ashamed that he overheard her confession. It is too late to pretend reluctance. Juliet freely admits her passion, and the two exchange vows of love. Juliet tells Romeo that she will marry him and will send him word by nine o’clock the next morning to arrange for their wedding.

Romeo then goes off to the monastery cell of Friar Lawrence to enlist his help in the ceremony. The good friar is much impressed with Romeo’s devotion. Thinking that the union of a Montague and a Capulet will dissolve the enmity between the two houses, he promises to marry Romeo and Juliet.

Early the next morning, while he is in company with his two friends, Benvolio and Mercutio, Romeo receives Juliet’s message, brought by her nurse. He tells the old woman of his arrangement with Friar Lawrence and bids her carry the word back to Juliet. The nurse gives her mistress the message. When Juliet appears at the friar’s cell at the appointed time, she and Romeo are married. Time is short, however, and Juliet has to hurry home. Before she leaves, Romeo promises that he will meet her in the orchard underneath the balcony after dark that night.

That same day, Romeo’s friends, Mercutio and Benvolio, are loitering in the streets when Tybalt comes by with some other members of the Capulet house. Tybalt, still holding his grudge against Romeo, accuses Mercutio of keeping company with the hateful and villainous young Montague. Mercutio, proud of his friendship with Romeo, cannot take insult lightly, for he is as hot-tempered when provoked as Tybalt. The two are beginning their heated quarrel when Romeo, who just returned from his wedding, appears. He is appalled at the situation because he knows that Juliet is fond of Tybalt, and he wishes no injury to his wife’s people. He tries in vain to settle the argument peaceably. Mercutio is infuriated by Romeo’s soft words, and when Tybalt calls Romeo a villain, Mercutio draws his sword and rushes to his friend’s defense. Tybalt, the better swordsman, gives Mercutio a mortal wound. Romeo can try to settle the fight no longer. Enraged at the death of his friend, he rushes at Tybalt with drawn sword and kills him quickly. The fight soon brings crowds of people to the spot. For his part in the fray, Romeo is banished from Verona.

Hiding out from the police, he goes, grief-stricken, to Friar Lawrence’s cell. The friar advises him to go to his wife that night, and then at dawn to flee to Mantua until the friar sees fit to publish the news of the wedding. Romeo consents to follow this advice. As darkness falls, he goes to meet Juliet. When dawn appears, heartsick Romeo leaves for Mantua.

Meanwhile, Juliet’s father decides that it is time for his daughter to marry. Having not the slightest idea of her love for Romeo, the old man demands that she accept her handsome and wealthy suitor, Paris. Juliet is horrified at her father’s proposal but dares not tell him of her marriage because of Romeo’s part in Tybalt’s death. She fears that her husband will be instantly sought out and killed if her family learned of the marriage.

At first she tries to put off her father with excuses. Failing to persuade him, she goes in dread to Friar Lawrence to ask the good monk what she could do. Telling her to be brave, the friar gives her a small flask of liquid which he tells her to swallow the night before her wedding to Paris. This liquid will make her appear to be dead for a certain length of time; her seemingly lifeless body will then be placed in an open tomb for a day or two, and during that time the friar would send for Romeo, who would rescue his bride when she awakens from the powerful effects of the draught. Then, together, the two will be able to flee Verona. Juliet almost loses courage over this desperate venture, but she promises to obey the friar. On the way home she meets Paris and modestly promises to be his bride.

The great house of the Capulets no sooner prepares for a lavish wedding than it becomes the scene of a mournful funeral. Juliet swallows the strong liquid and seems lifeless. Her anguished family sadly places her body in the tomb.

Meanwhile Friar Lawrence writes to Romeo in Mantua, telling him of the plan by which the lovers can make their escape together. These letters, however, fail to reach Romeo before word of Juliet’s death arrives. He determines to go to Verona and take his last farewell of her as she lies in her tomb, and there, with the help of poison procured from an apothecary, to die by her side.

Reaching the tomb at night, Romeo is surprised to find a young man there. It is Paris, who comes to weep over his lost bride. Thinking Romeo a grave robber, he draws his sword. Romeo, mistaking Paris for a hated Capulet, warns him that he is desperate and armed. Paris, in loyalty to Juliet, falls upon Romeo, but Romeo kills him. By the light of a lantern, Romeo recognizes Paris and, taking pity on one who also loved Juliet, draws him into the tomb so that Paris, too, can be near her. Then Romeo goes to the bier of his beautiful bride. Taking leave of her with a kiss, he drinks the poison he brought with him and soon dies by her side.

It is near the time for Juliet to awaken from her deathlike sleep. The friar, hearing that Romeo never received his letters, goes himself to deliver Juliet from the tomb. When he arrives, he finds Romeo dead. Juliet, waking, asks for her husband. Then, seeing him lying near her with an empty cup in his hands, she guesses what he did. She tries to kiss some of the poison from his lips that she, too, might die, but failing in this, she unsheathes his dagger and without hesitation plunges it into her breast.

By this time a guard comes up. Seeing the dead lovers and the body of Paris, he rushes off in horror to spread the news. When the Capulets and Montagues arrives at the tomb, the friar tells them of the unhappy fate that befell Romeo and Juliet, whose only sin was to love. His account of their tender and beautiful romance shames the two families, and over the bodies of their dead children they swear to end the feud of many years.