Since I hope I’m reaching new readers as well as people familiar with Shakespeare, I plan to post a summary of each play as I read it. This will give people some context if they want to follow along, and I hope will entice them to read the play themselves. It also helps me think about the play. And if anyone sees any errors, let me know so I can fix them—this is just based on my casual reading of the text, so I could easily have things out of order or get the details wrong.
Without further ado, here’s… Romeo and Juliet!
Setting the Scene
The Capulet family hates the Montague family, and vice versa. The antagonism goes way back and has resulted in a number of street fights. So Romeo and Juliet begins–on the streets of fair Verona, the Capulet servants pick a fight with Montague servants (biting their thumbs at each other, which apparently is like flipping someone the bird and very offensive). Sword fights ensue and the Prince arrives to break it up and send everyone on their way with a stern warning.
Romeo (a Montague) misses the action because he’s off pining for Rosaline, who won’t give him the time of day. Romeo’s cousin Benvolio chit chats with him a bit and they’re joined by their friend Mercutio, who is a bit of a smart mouth… very funny and witty and always needling people or telling a joke.
While they’re chatting, a servant from the Capulet’s comes up and asks if they can read, because he has a guest list for a big party at the Capulet’s and he’s supposed to deliver the invitations, but he can’t read. Romeo reads through the list and sees Rosaline is invited. The boys all decide they will need to crash this party. The servant, not knowing they’re Montagues, tells them they’re welcome, the more the merrier.
Meanwhile, at the Capulet’s house, Paris stops by to ask for Juliet’s hand in marriage. She’s not yet 14, and her father isn’t eager to marry her off yet. He tells Paris to come to the party and woo Juliet or see if he likes someone else better.
The Capulet Feast
Romeo and the boys get to the party and immediately Romeo is star struck by the beautiful Juliet. They play footsie (actually handsie) and share a couple kisses during the party. Rosaline is forgotten.
Juliet’s cousin Tybalt recognizes Romeo and is really pissed off that he had the gall to crash the party. Capulet warns Tybalt not to raise a fuss and ruin the party and to just ignore Romeo and leave him be, because he’s a nice boy and not causing any trouble (no one saw Romeo and Juliet kissing!). Tybalt simmers.
As the party ends, Romeo learns that Juliet is Capulet’s only daughter, and Juliet learns that Romeo is Montague’s only son. Oh no! Bad news for the young lovers. They each just fell in love with the one person on Earth who they shouldn’t love.
The Balcony Scene
The party is over and Romeo gives his buddies the slip so that he can go stare at Juliet’s house and pine for her. And amazingly, Juliet appears at the window and she’s talking to herself. He gets closer so he can hear her, and she says his name! This is the famous “Wherefore art thou Romeo” speech—wherefore means “why” and she means “Why are you Romeo?” or really “Why on Earth did I fall in love with a Montague… the only person I really shouldn’t fall in love with?”
Romeo calls out to her and they have an intimate conversation on the balcony, with both ultimately professing their love. Things move quickly and Juliet asks Romeo to send a message to her the next day with the time and place where they can be married.
Romeo sets up the quickie wedding with Friar Laurence the next morning. Friar Laurence is baffled about how Romeo could go from pining away for Rosaline yesterday to marrying Juliet today. But, he agrees to marry them because he thinks it might help settle the feud between the families.
Juliet’s nurse shows up in town to get the wedding time and place from Romeo. Mercutio is very crudely rude to her. Romeo tells the Nurse that Juliet should go to Friar Laurence’s cell and he will marry them.
Juliet goes there, and they marry. Juliet goes home while Romeo goes back to town.
Mayhem on the Streets of Verona
Meanwhile, in town, it’s a steamy day, and Mercutio is hot and bothered. Tybalt comes out and has a bone to pick with him since he saw Mercutio at the Capulet party with Romeo. There is much witty back and forth, and then the swords are drawn and they start fighting. Romeo tries to break up the fight. While Romeo is between them, Tybalt stabs Mercutio by mistake. Tybalt runs off. Mercutio dies, much to the astonishment of everyone there, who thought he was just telling more of his jokes when he said things like “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.”
Romeo is crazy upset and goes to find Tybalt, gets in a fight with him, and kills Tybalt. He wakes up from his craziness and can’t believe he just killed his love’s cousin. He’s beside himself.
The Prince shows up again, angrier than ever, and banishes Romeo from Verona. He says if Romeo ever shows up in town again, he’ll be put to death.
One Blissful Night
Juliet gets the news that Romeo killed her cousin just hours after their marriage, and she can’t believe it. She is so hurt and upset that Romeo is banished and that she’ll never see her husband. Her Nurse tells her not to be so upset because she knows where Romeo is hiding (at Friar Laurence’s cell) and she’ll go get him and bring him to her.
The Nurse does this, and Romeo and Juliet get their one night of wedded bliss. Then the morning is there before they know it and Romeo is off to his exile in Mantua. They hope to be reunited some day, but have no idea how it can happen.
The Plot Thickens
Meanwhile, Juliet’s father, thinking she is so upset because of Tybalt’s death, decides the best thing to do to cheer her up would be to marry her off to Paris ASAP. So he sets that all up and has Lady Capulet give Juliet the news. Both parents are really angry when Juliet doesn’t go along with the program. Capulet basically tells her she’s a spoiled brat and that he’ll disown her if she doesn’t marry Paris.
Juliet cries to her Nurse and asks what can be done, and to her surprise, the Nurse tells her to just go ahead and marry Paris since he’s such a fine man, and Romeo’s gone, gone, gone. Juliet cannot believe her trusted Nurse could say this. She runs off to the friar to get his advice.
Juliet runs into Paris at Friar Laurence’s cell. He’s all kissy-happy about the upcoming wedding and thinks it’s great that Juliet is there for confession. What a good future wife.
When Paris leaves, Juliet asks Friar Laurence to help her die to avoid marrying Paris. The friar has a sudden idea: he gives Juliet a sleeping potion made from herbs. The potion will make her seem dead for 42 hours–enough time to avoid the marriage to Paris. In the meantime, the friar tells her he will send a message to Romeo in Mantua, letting him know what’s going on and to meet at the Capulet family grave (a building or vault) in time to be with Juliet when she wakes up. Then he’ll help them escape together and live happily ever after. Juliet loves the plan and takes the potion with her back to her home.
She tells her dad that she’s all set for the wedding to Paris. Capulet is so happy that he moves the wedding up to the very next morning and starts making plans for the wedding party. Juliet goes to bed and takes the sleeping potion.
The nurse finds her “dead” the next morning and they have a funeral and lay her near Tybalt in the family vault.
Romeo’s servant Balthasar sees the “dead” Juliet and rides off to Mantua to tell Romeo the sad news. Romeo can’t believe it. He goes to see a pharmacist and asks for strong poison, and then he rides off to Verona to see Juliet in the vault and poison himself.
Meanwhile, Friar John stops by and tells Friar Laurence that he never delivered the message to Romeo. He was around someone that might have had the plague and was quarantined and not allowed to leave Verona, so the message never went to Mantua. Friar Laurence realizes this means Romeo knows nothing about the sleeping potion and the escape plan. He is very worried and runs off to the Capulet vault.
Death at the Capulet Vault
When Romeo gets to the Capulet vault, he finds Paris there strewing flowers around and feeling sad about his lost love. Paris believes Juliet died from sadness over Tybalt’s death. Paris sees Romeo at the vault and recognizes him as Tybalt’s murderer. He’s angry and draws his sword. Romeo fights in self defense and kills Paris. Romeo runs into the vault, sees Juliet’s body, takes his poison and dies while kissing her one last time.
Friar Laurence gets to the vault, finds Paris’s body, then goes in and sees Romeo’s body and Juliet starting to wake up. He tells Juliet to come with him quickly because the night watch (like police) are coming and they can’t be found there. He runs away, but Juliet won’t leave. She sees that Romeo left no poison for her to take. She hears the watch coming, so she wastes no time, takes Romeo’s dagger and stabs herself. She dies.
The watch gets there and finds the bodies of Paris, Romeo, and the bleeding, newly-dead body of Juliet, who had been in the tomb for two days. In this confusion, they start looking around for suspects to question. They find the friar and he explains all. Balthasar corroborates and has a suicide note Romeo left for his father, which further explains the situation with the secret marriage of Romeo and Juliet.
The Prince is very angry and sad that the hatred between the Capulets and Montagues has led two young lovers to such extremes and has left so much death in its wake. Capulet and Montague agree to end their feud. Montague promises to raise a golden statue of Juliet in Verona. Not to be outdone, Capulet says he will have a statue of Romeo made to set beside her. The prince tells them to go discuss the details. And that ends the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet.
Of course, Shakespeare had a nicer way of putting it (everything), so I’ll end it with his own words:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
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