William Shakespeare introduces the story of Romeo and Juliet by using a prologue. The function of the prologue is to explain the situation, setting the scene in Verona and the quarrel between the families is old, ‘ancient grudge’. The prologue informs the audience that the lovers are ‘star-cross’d’ and that their death ends the feud between the families; the prologue creates the dramatic back-drop of the play. By using a prologue, Shakespeare introduces the theme of love, informing the audience of the lovers.
During Shakespeare’s time, it was not unusual to introduce the play by using a chorus.
The chorus would silence the audience and create an appropriate mood for the first scene. The chorus emphasizes that the lovers are fated and their love is ‘death-marked’. The prologue helps create dramatic irony, the audience are aware that the play is a tragedy. Shakespeare’s audience did not mind being given the same narrative structure; however, Shakespeare introduced a new level of contemporary entertainment.
It is said that for this particular play, Shakespeare relies upon a narrative poem, “The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet” published in 1562 and translated into English.
However, Shakespeare’s play is not an adaptation of the poem because the relationship between Romeo and Juliet is much deeper and dramatised; the couple do not have many scenes together. In Act 1 Scene 1, two Capulet servants wander through the streets of Verona. They see servants from the house of Montague, they quarrel. This scene is opened by fighting; this is a dramatic opening and shows how deep the feud between the Montagues and Cauplets is. The speed in which the fighting breaks out prepares the audience for the way haste and speed plays a big part in the coming tragedy; the play starts on Sunday morning and ends on Thursday afternoon.
This quarrel begins almost as a farce; biting your thumb at someone is an ancient Italian insult. In Romeo and Juliet’s world, the old and foolish overrule the young; Capulet and Montague’s quarrel is shown in a foolish light, however this also heightens dramatic tension. The town’s people and the Prince are tried of this enmity. Escalus, Prince of Verona, is the representative of law and order in the play. Escalus is furious with both families; he compares their behaviour to that of beasts. He is angry because their pointless fighting is disrupting the social life of the city.
The Prince commands them to restore the peace or it will end in death. This dramatic irony allows the audience to be aware that the feud will end in death and no family will succeed, but they will cause problems for themselves. The families are ‘forsworn to love’ between themselves. The Prince’s name means justice and this is his role on each of the three occasions he appears. In less then a hundred lines, Shakespeare has created a tense atmosphere where even one word can trigger off unthinking violence.
As the Prince departs, the mood changes because Lady Montague asks the question that the audience want to ask, ‘O where is Romeo? ‘ Benvolio becomes poetic as he talks about Romeo; he talks about sunlight and silence. This use of imagery by Shakespeare creates a deliberate atmosphere around the lovers in several scenes. Benvolio says that Romeo has been walking underneath a grove of sycamore trees; the name is being used as a pun, ‘sick amour’. Romeo is compared to Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, by Montague because of his speed. This is significant because this is the dawn of the lovers’ tragedy.
These references to mythology are only connected with Romeo or Juliet. When the audience meet Romeo, he is in a melancholy mood, however, it is shown that Romeo enjoys his misery. Romeo loves Rosaline who does not love him, he plays with words of how love confuses and mixes up, turning order into chaos. Romeo’s speech is full of opposites, ‘brawling love’, ‘loving hate’ and ‘feather of lead’. This grouping together of opposites in the imagery is known as ‘oxymoron’. These images of chaos and confusion are repeated throughout the play.
Romeo mentions of ‘still-waking sleep, that is not what it is’; this is almost a vision of the future, were he will find Juliet seemingly dead. Romeo’s language is artificial and forced. He uses so many ornate and different descriptions for his feelings because he is not really in love at all; he is in love with the idea of being in love. Romeo talks a lot in rhyming couplets, which makes his speech sound more like a well-rehearsed speech than a true expression of emotional torment. When Romeo meets Juliet, his language becomes more sincere and passionate.
Romeo seems desperate to fall in love, but it is an idealised kind of love that he wants; he is realistic, uncompromising and given to extremes, which helps the audience to prepare for his headlong fall into passionate love in Juliet. The audience can conclude that Rosaline is only his fancy and he could be cured if he would follow Benvolio’s prescription and ‘Examine other beauties’. In Act 1 Scene 2, the real twist of the play begins. The audience have not yet met Juliet but hear Paris confidently asking Capulet for Juliet’s hand in marriage; this therefore produces tragic complications for Romeo and Juliet although they have not yet met.
Capulet uses imagery to describe how young and unprepared Juliet is to become a bride. Juliet’s ‘ripeness’ to be a bride is talked of in the same breath as summer ‘withering’. Montague talks about Romeo being blighted like a bud bitten by a worm. These hints in the imagery prepare the audience for the upcoming tragedy. The love of Romeo and Juliet is full of promise and hope but doomed by fate. Capulet decides to hold a ball in which Juliet can meet with Paris. This idea of marriage to Paris creates a dramatic complexity; how is she going to meet and fall in love with Romeo if she is promised to Paris.
In Act 1 Scene 3, the audience realise the importance of the Nurse, as the Nurse is more of a mother of Juliet than Lady Capulet; we realise this because of her emotional speech of Juliet’s childhood. We learn about Juliet’s age and a great deal about the personal sorrow of the Nurse. Lady Capulet is a contrast to the Nurse; she introduces the topic of marriage to Paris very abruptly and without sensitivity. ‘Tell me, daughter Juliet, how stands your dispositions to be married? ‘ she expects Juliet to obey her commands without question. Lady Capulet describes Paris in a sonnet, an elaborate comparison of Paris with a book.
However, her extended metaphor has no impact upon Juliet’s feelings. Juliet’s reply to meet Paris shows only a young girl’s obedience. Act 1 Scene 4 shows Romeo openly being teased by his friends for his false love in Rosaline. Romeo and his friends are about to gatecrash the Capulet’s ball. The audience meet Mercutio; he describes Romeo’s dreams as being enchanted by Queen Mab. In such dreams, reality and madness seem to meet, and it is this sort of lovers’ dream that is about to come true for Romeo. Romeo agrees to go to the ball because Rosaline will be there but he feels uneasy and has a premonition of death.
Romeo uses legal language prophesying that his premature death will result from what he begins tonight at Capulet’s mansion. This again shows dramatic irony as the lovers meet at this feast. The opening of Act1 Scene 5 is calm because we see domestic matters as the servants clear up after dinner. This dramatic delay sharpens the audiences desire to see what happens when they meet. Romeo and his friends enter as masquers and are greeted by Capulet; they mix in with the guests. Romeo catches his first glimpse of Juliet as she dances with Paris.
Rosaline was invited to the ball, but we do not hear of her; Romeo has no eyes for her. Immediately, Romeo’s language becomes poetic as he describes Juliet’s beauty. Romeo considers her beauty as ‘too rich for use’ and ‘for earth too dear’; he feels that she is too fine for the uses of this world and too precious for earth. This sounds ominous and reinforces the sense of forbidden love. Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, recognises Romeo’s voice and is ready to fight; however, he is stopped by Capulet, who has become wiser since this morning’s quarrel. This gives time for Romeo to approach Juliet.
Romeo and Juliet share a sonnet; sonnets were popular during the sixteenth century. Romeo compares Juliet to a saint; religious imagery is used throughout their conversation. Their formal use of language is rather dignified and stresses the purity and sincerity of their love for each other. The sonnet’s use of religious words isolates the characters from the rest of the scene. Romeo and Juliet kiss and are about to start a second sonnet but they are disturbed by the Nurse. The interruption by the Nurse brings the lovers back into the real world from their state of isolation and they begin to understand what has happened.
From the Nurse, Romeo learns that Juliet is a Capulet, the family so bitterly at odds with his own and whoever marries her will be very rich, although her wealth is of no interest to Romeo. Juliet wants to know if Romeo is married; if he is then her wedding bed will be her grave. Juliet’s character has changed from an obedient child to determine and strong-minded young woman; however this could lead conflict with her parents’ wishes to marry Paris. Again the Nurse is the source of information as Juliet learns that Romeo is her enemy; ‘My only love sprung from my only hate’, the audience feel sorry for the ill-fated lovers.
Romeo and Juliet’s hearts are tearing up as they learn that it will be difficult to be with their love, although it will be painful to be without; no matter what they do, they will suffer. This underlines the folly of the feud; if the two families would just accept each other, the feud would end and the lovers’ would be able to be with their other-half. The audience will want to know how the next scene is laid out. The stage is at a tense and worried atmosphere after many opposites and contrasting moods, it is at an appropriate mood for the tragedy to unfold.