A Close Reading Of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”

with special reference to “Sonnet no.116”

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2014

10 Pages

Free online reading


The present paper primarily endeavours to elaborate upon the basic conception of tragedy as laid out by imminent critics over the ages; to religiously undertake a comprehensive close study of the classic tragedy ‘ Romeo and Juliet ’ written by William Shakespeare; compare and contrast the previous works relating the story and Shakespeare’s very own interpretation; to critically scrutinize and elucidate upon the theme of love, its nature and quality, which is the deciding factor of the play, with special reference been made to ‘Sonnet no. 116’ by William Shakespeare. Both his poems and plays need to be carefully analysed for a proper appreciation of his grand imagination.

Key Words: tragedy, interpretation, scrutinize, love, nature, imagination.


Heminges and Condell, the first editors of Shakespeare in the ‘First Folio’ (1623) divided Shakespeare’s plays into three catagories-comedies, tragedies and histories. The catagorization was simplistic. They regarded every play that ended on a happy note as a comedy and every play that ended in death and disaster as a tragedy. A history play does not pose any difficult question, for some historical events represented on the stage chronologically, legitimately belongs to this group. Such canonization went against the Aristotlean view and also against any aesthetic common sense as pointed out Dr. Johnson. Altogether, Shakespeare wrote these tragedies, of which the first one was ‘ Titus Andronicus’. The others were ‘ Romeo and Juliet’, ‘ Julius Caesar’, ‘ Hamlet’, ‘ Troilus and Cressida’, ‘ Othello’, ‘ King Lear’, ‘ Timon of Athens’, ‘ Macbeth’, ‘ Antony and Cleopatra’ and ‘ Coriolanus’. Of them, the five greatest tragedies remain, ‘ Hamlet’, ‘ Macbeth’, ‘ Othello’, ‘ King Lear’ and ‘ Antony and Cleopatra ’. Though, ‘ Romeo and Juliet ’ may not have been one of the greatest tragedies, it surely qualifies to be one of the best tragedies ever written by Shakespeare. The story of two warring families whose two young souls are deeply in love “that is so overpowering that it seems to transcend all bounds of convention and reason” (Judy Clamon) has survived for generations (more than 400 years) and still continues to intrigue and enthral the readers. The present paper attempts to explore this particular aspect of love from a broad spectrum of analysis.

Close Reading

Aristotle in his ‘ Poetics ’ writes that a tragedy is that part of a dramatic action, which is again a poetic imitation comprising of a beginning, a middle and an end, where the characters are of a high order, the action noble and dignified and which is written in an exalted diction. This included the “proverbial” three unities of time, place and action. He said that a tragedy comprises of six main parts namely, muthos, ethos, diction, thought, spectacle and melody. Aristotle regarded muthos or plot to be more important than ethos or character. This is so because a drama is an imitation of human action and not human character. He introduced two structural features in the conception of a tragedy namely, peripeteia (an element of sudden change) and anagnorisis (recognition). This should follow from hamartia or moral blindness in the tragic hero. A tragedy should be able to arouse the emotions of pity and terror in the minds of the audience. This pity and terror aroused leads to a process called katharsis, which may roughly be regarded as purging or a healthy draining out of emotions. Shakespeare, as is universally known never followed the rigorous Classical unities, especially those of time and place (except for a few occasions) save the unity of action; neither did he strictly or devoutly adhere to the to the Aristotlean principles concerning the standard construction of a tragedy, which also meant keeping the two distinct genres, tragedy and comedy abound. Although, he took note of some of these principles, the rest can be said to have been moulded by his artistic imagination, being incorrigibly “a poet of nature” (See Samuel Johnson, 1765).

Taking this as the starting point, A.C. Bradley observes that a Shakespearean tragedy is principally guided by certain arbitrary features that play a vital role in its formation. These features include the character, his “characteristic deeds”, some accidents and a moral law or order; which are shown to be not only intrinsically connected, but also that which invariably govern the tragic action. Character, however, in spite of its figurative magnificence is placed at a subordinate level to the action or the plot. At no point in Shakespeare can there be found more importance attached to the character than the action. Bradley further points out that in Shakespeare’s plays character is not destiny. The tragic character is solely driven by his thoughts, inner motives and actions and not by any outward influence, so that whatever he may think and act, the “ends” of it remain totally unknown to him. Accidents and coincidences are not left out of the play. Friar John’s marked failure to hand out the purported letter to Romeo on time, on Juliet not waking up earlier and only a moment too late are a few such examples. These “accidents” are relevant in their own context. But Shakespeare makes sparse use of them and does not let them occupy a main part in the dramatic action. Then again, the tragic hero, Bradley affirms, seems to be in conflict with not “fate” [“we find practically no trace of fatalism in its more primitive, crude and obvious forms”(See Bradley, 1919)], but a kind of moral order; either being in conformity with that order or against it. In other words, he sows the seeds of his own “evil”, in deliberate pursuance of the object cherished by him and his failure to consummate it, he wroughts “suffering” and “calamity” upon himself and in the process, not only destroys the object concerned and the “evil”, but also “priceless good”. In this context, one exceedingly potent question would be asked that what is the seed of the tragic action in the play ‘ Romeo and Juliet’ or what is the moral order to which Romeo and Juliet (since both are tragic characters in the play), principally Romeo fail to conform. It is that he goes against all the norms and conventions of the civil society and secretly ties the knot to Juliet. In 14th century Verona, there was no such thing as a “love” marriage (See Judy Clamon, 2005). Men practised courtly love with the women they would marry, only after having been consented by the father for giving away his daughter’s hand in marriage. Women had no say in such matters. The only virtue expected of them were “silence, obedience and chastity”. Matrimonial alliances were largely based upon the prospect of family welfare and improvement and not by some downright rebellious emotion called “love”. In this sense, Romeo blurred all distinctions, broke all conventions and stereotypes, customs and norms to be with the one he loved. In his inability to achieve “perfection” by an unstable means, he only proceeds towards his own inevitable destruction and fatal end. It is to be remembered that the marriage was solemnized only by the Friar and the nurse was also “privy” to this. Except for them, no other person, neither the relatives of the respective families nor the close friends of Romeo had any close knowledge of it. Under such circumstances, even a sturdy institution like marriage may seem to wobble and is bound to be looked upon as infirm, null, invalid and non-existent. It is here that the problem takes the shape of a complication and seems to get ever eccentric and unpredictable.

Two affluent noble families, the Capulets and the Montagues are at loggerheads and daggers-drawn with each other. An ancient dispute takes the form of a bloody strife, which only looks for opportunities to thrive itself. Even the people of Verona have become a part of this struggle and each time take sides as in a bullfight, to stimulate and invigorate their senses. Romeo from the beginning is shown to be moody, wayward and melancholic. He is unique and widely different from the rest of his clan. While both the families partake in the delight of the infamous glory of knocking each other’s brains out, seething in hatred, Romeo finds solace in the fruitful arms of generous love. He is not plagued or annoyed by the spirit of revenge unlike the rest of his family and friends. At first, he is infatuated by a young lady named Rosaline; all his early eccentricities and idiosyncrasies can be traced to this “abnormal condition” of his mind. Bradley points out that Shakespeare would occasionally effect some such “abnormal condition” in the tragic hero, but they would in no way play a potent part or be a tragic cause to any “dramatic moment”. Despite such known peculiarities of the mind, Romeo’s basic attitude is sound and sane, for a tragedy would cease to exist if the hero turns out to be a mad man. It is to be noted however, that his first emotion is faulty and fractured, for it is one-sided, unacknowledged and unrequited. It is only when he comes across Juliet and she reciprocates his emotions and grants them their due honour and acknowledgement, that they qualify into “true love” (for that which is unrealised and unrequited can never be love at all). Romeo is a wanderer, a devotee to the temple of love and in his quest; he at last discovers his object of worship, his true love, i.e. Juliet. The emotion is mutual. That is why, when they meet each other they refer to one another using terms such as “pilgrim”, “saint”, “palmers”, “devotions” and “shrines” (See Judy Clamon, 2005). Their love is “pure” and divine. Juliet, at first, appears to be obedient and complaisant towards her parents. She is “indifferent” to her matrimonial match, County Paris. But the moment she beholds Romeo, she appears to be overwhelmed by him and cannot but accept to have lost her heart for him. As the play progresses and they get married, she is emboldened and rebellious to the dictates of her parents. Mercutio is slain by her cousin, Tybalt, who in turn is slain by Romeo to avenge his friend’s death. Romeo is banished by the Prince, and therefore, seeks refuge in Mantua, leaving Juliet in sorrow but in hope of a future reunion. Juliet is given a sleeping potion by Friar Lawrence to “feign” death. She does this to avert her marriage with Paris and to reunite with Romeo, whom the Friar plans to commence when she awakes. The whole thing takes a nasty turn when the letter calling upon Romeo to Verona fails to reach him. Romeo is reported by his servant Balthazar that Juliet is dead. Romeo collects a dreadful poison from an apothecary and proceeds to Verona. He enters the tomb of the Capulets. Paris is also there to mourn the loss of Juliet. Romeo kills him and finally kills himself (consuming the poison) to lie peacefully by his beloved, Juliet. Juliet awakens to disappointment and misery. She bids the Friar to go away and kills herself by Romeo’s dagger. Romeo’s mother dies of a “broken heart” ensuing from Romeo’s prolonged absence. The Capulets and the Montagues reach the graveyard to find the entire younger generation wiped out. They reconcile.

The transition from a comedy to a sombre tragedy is to be distinctly marked out.

“Until the death of Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet permits the oppositions to coexist in the mode of comedy: the young characters circumvent or ignore adult interference in their lives, and the past barely inhibits the most impetuous present. But that fatality destroys the balance, and the narrative enters the mode of tragedy. Youth repeatedly expires in its own ardency like a flash of lightning, while mature society endures-for better or worse-to perform the funeral rites.” (See Jill L. Levenson, 1987)

The artistic source of Shakespeare’s ‘ Romeo and Juliet ’ can be traced long back to an Italian tale written by Luigi da Porto. This tale was revised and polished by Matteo Bandelo, the bishop of Agen, who published it in his storybook “novelle” (1554-1573). This story was translated into English by Pierre Boaistan and rewritten by Arthur Brooke who furnished his own version of the story. Brooke depended not only on Boaistan’s translation, but also a lost play on Romeo and Juliet that he came across either in “Oxford” or “Cambridge” or “on the continent” (See Alan Hager, 1999). Shakespeare while writing ‘ Romeo and Juliet ’ solely followed Brooke, though he might have had access to the “lost play” and took note of it as well. While Brooke’s version is largely infused with idealism and sentimentalism and works upon a generalized “rationalization” to prove the story’s credibility, Shakespeare on the other hand works upon this “rationalization” only to produce “ironies” and “contradictions” (See Jill L. Levenson, 1987) in the play; that life was unpredictable and any rationalization could only prove to be a serious folly was not unknown by the great master. He characteristically replaced idealism with realism and sentimentalism with objective common sense. A close reading of passages from the two works succinctly establishes and confirms the difference.

From Arthur Brooke’s Romeus And Juliet (1562)

To The Reader

And to this end, good Reader, is this tragical matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends, confering their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th’ attaining of their wished lust; using auricular confession, the key of whoredom and treason, for furtherance of their purpose; abusing the honourable name of lawful marriage to cloak the shame of stolen contracts; finally by all means of unhonest life hasting to most unhappy death…. (Qtd. in Alan Hager, 1999)

From William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

The Prologue

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where lay our scene

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows

Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife

The fearful passage of their death marked love,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage.

Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,

Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage….

In this sense, although he (Shakespeare) stuck to the text of the “novellieri”, he made necessary modifications for that heightened dramatic effect and “thematic reinforcement” solely in the interest of pure art. He did another thing. He discarded and downcasted the “bitter, painful” love of Romeus, which made it look more of a punishable offence into Romeo’s everlasting and endless love for Juliet, assigning the “bitter, painful” part to his hapless love for Rosaline (See Alan Hager, 1999). He removed the “serious ambience” prevalent in the novelle with a “pronounced sense of casuality” (See Jill L. Levenson, 1987), adorning the lovers’ enviroment. Shakespeare’s characters in their moments of ecstasy and agony express “sound judgement more often than strong feeling”. Often they would engage in introspection and “debate” over their actions. This curious mixture of “sense” and “sensibility”, of “reason” and “emotive capability” not only enlivened the discourses, but also helped to create a synthesis between the heart and the mind. This is one feature absent and unobserved in the fables. Moreover, the sense of rush and “restlessness” in the story is eased in Shakespeare’s play by continual alterations so that instead of stock, familiar responses, the audience would gape in bewilderment and eager excitement on the next course of action. Brooke’s version is infused with amorous adumbrations and lustful delineations, all brinking on the verge of profaneness and unchastity. Shakespeare removed the lovemaking scene, ceasing it to be the only essential ingredient by a more powerful spiritual communion. It is more than apparent from their early addresses to one another and their equally sensible and patient dispositions that they have already attained an ethereal bliss, which transcends all mortal barriers including desire (flesh) and death. It is this predominant feature that grants the play a wide degree of latitude, an undying appeal and is able to elevate it to a level of splendour and magnificence.

It is remarkable to note that the lovers’ stance do not alter or budge at the face of disparate odds and untoward circumstances. It is rather steady, composed and dignified and resolves to grow stronger by the passing moment. This brings to one’s mind the unforgettable lines:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.” (Sonnet no. 116)

Romeo does not dispel his emotions when he learns of the true identity of Juliet. He says: “my life is my foe’s debt”. Neither does Juliet shrink away from the thought of being in love with the enemy. She says:

“My only love sprung from my only hate!

Too early seen unknown, and known too late!”

This said, the magnificent temple of love only seems to quiver for a while by a brief spell of misunderstanding, when Tybalt is slain and Juliet at once, begins to hate Romeo. The Nurse, who is ignorant and vulgar acknowledges her hatred and foolishly abhors and admonishes Romeo in front of her (Juliet). This makes Juliet realize her mistake. She becomes clear-eyed and is able to differentiate between her “only love” i.e. Romeo and the “bitter gall” of hatred i.e. Tybalt.

Their love withstands the hegemony of death, of whose terror they refuse to cringe. They both die together. Thus, severed by life, they are rejoined in death. They (the lovers) are neither at the mercy of frail and obliging life nor at the mercy of tyrannous and impertinent death. Recalling again:

“Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.” (Sonnet no. 116)


Critics have often claimed ‘ Romeo and Juliet’ to be an “immature”, but “pure tragedy”, one that lay the seeds of future mature tragedies. It is to be noted however that ‘ Romeo and Juliet’ has stood the test of time and has indoleably left a high mark in the realm of tragedy. Its enduring popularity cannot be sidelined, especially for its appeal of undying love and “youth-connect”. The story has ample relevance to be found even today and people identify with it in numerous ways. Countless editions and works have been carried out to determine and comprehend the brilliance of his plays. Yet Shakespeare remains a puzzle. No amount of work seems to suffice to ideally chalk out his artistic genius. To quote Matthew Arnold, “Out-topping knowledge” indeed!


Bradley, A. C. (1919). Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. London: Macmillan And Co. {EBook # 16966} (Online) Available: www.gutenberg.org/files/16966/16966-h/16966-h.htm (Release Date: Oct 30, 2005)

Clamon, Judy. (2005). William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. New Jersey: Research and Education Association Inc. (REA)

Hager, Alan. (1999). Understanding Romeo and Juliet: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources and Historical Documents. U.S.A: Greenwood Press.

Johnson, Samuel. (1765). Preface To Shakespeare. (Online) Available: ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/johnson/samuel/preface/ [Last Updated: Thursday, Feb 27, 2014]

Levenson, Jill L. (1987). Shakespeare In Performance: Romeo and Juliet. U.S.A: Manchester University Press.

Shakespeare, William. (1964). The Complete Works. ELBS. London and Glasgow: Collins Clear-Type Press.

10 of 10 pages


A Close Reading Of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”
with special reference to “Sonnet no.116”
Jamshedpur Womens College  (affiliated to Kolhan University)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
413 KB
romeo and juliet, romeo und julia, William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
Quote paper
Dr.hc Puja Chakraberty (Author), 2014, A Close Reading Of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/306548


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: A Close Reading Of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free