How does Shakespeare use language and stagecraft?

Categories: William Shakespeare
About this essay

‘Romeo and Juliet’ – a play written 500 years ago which still captures the hearts and minds of young and old alike. It is a play about two young lovers whose destinies are entwined in the stars – “star-cross’d” – belonging to two rival families. Their “death-mark’d love” results in the tragic and untimely deaths of both of them. The main themes of this play still occur in modern romantic films. The idea of forbidden love appeals to young people, many of whom find the story incredibly romantic.

It is also attractive to older people, perhaps because the recurring themes of love, betrayal and loyalty to each other are still very relevant in modern life. Despite the age of the play, the basic storyline that Shakespeare chose, of two young people falling love, discouraged by their families and ending in tragedy, is one which reappears time and time again in more modern films, plays and books.

In Elizabethan times, when the play was written and set, things were very different to how they are now.

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It was considered perfectly normal for a young girl, such as Juliet who is “not fourteen”, to be married. Lady Capulet herself was married and giving birth to Juliet “much upon the years that you are now a maid”. The parents, and especially the father, would choose the bridegroom and the young girl would not have a choice. They would also marry for very different reasons to what we, in general, do. Whilst most modern marriages are for love, in that era they were either for money or for status.

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In ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the marriage arranged to the “County Paris” is almost definitely for the connections that would be established between the Capulet household and that of the Count. In the patriarchal Elizabethan society, women had very little say in the course of their own lives.

They would be under their father’s control until the day they married the husband chosen by him. They would then obey their spouse for the rest of their lives. This is the case for Juliet, and when she rejects the marriage proposal, her father calls her a “disobedient wretch” and threatens to throw her out and “ne’er acknowledge thee”. The audience would have reacted to Romeo and Juliet’s secret marriage in several ways. In going against their parents, they were doing something unacceptable. Whilst today this is commonplace, at the time children obeyed their parents without question. Some would have seen the disobedience as shocking, but others would have admired the courage of the couple, believing that it showed how strongly in love they were.

Elizabethans also believed in fate and destiny. They thought that from the moment of birth to the moment and manner of death, their lives were controlled by the sun, the moon and the stars. In this way, Romeo and Juliet were doomed to die, making the play even more tragic, for whatever they attempted, no matter how hard they tried to be together, they were still going to end up dead. This shows the cruelty of the stars, which the audience would have believed in and found very poignant. Fate is mentioned several times in the play, such as in the prologue where the two lovers are described as “star-cross’d” and from the “fatal loins” of their two families. This makes it clear to the audience from the beginning that fate is very much involved in the tragic story. Read what to do f you find a path with no obstacles

At the time that the play was written, the Church had much more control over society than it does now. People were discouraged from acting on their passions, which was considered to be animalistic. Instead, they were encouraged to let their lives be ruled by careful thought. This is demonstrated when Friar Lawrence reminds Romeo that “violent delights have violent ends…Therefore love moderately”, telling him to be careful with their reckless love as nothing good is likely to come of it. When Romeo and Juliet let their desires govern their actions, such as when they get married, they are behaving in quite a shocking way. The Church would also have been outraged at their suicides because anyone who committed suicide could not be buried on consecrated ground and would go to Hell. This showed that Romeo and Juliet were placing their love above their beliefs, and the audience would have reacted in different ways. Some would have seen it as shocking and disgraceful, whilst others would have though it tragic that there was no other way for them to be together.

The Prologue seems strange nowadays because it is unconventional for the audience to know the ending at the beginning of the play. However, at the time this was the done thing because it would help people to follow the storyline if they missed a key line or scene in the noisy, crowded theatre. It is also where fate is introduced, letting the audience know that this is a story of lives controlled by destiny.

During the play, Romeo and Juliet are not the only characters governed by fate. Many others do things which influence the course of the play. If Benvolio had not persuaded Romeo to go to the Capulet’s ball to “compare her [Rosaline’s] face with some that I shall show”, Romeo would never have seen and fallen in love with Juliet. Likewise, Tybalt would never have seen Romeo and challenged him to as duel the next day, which led to the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, as well as the banishing of Romeo. This in turn caused Juliet’s plan to fake her death and the eventual tragic demise of the two lovers.

Throughout the play, fate is often mentioned and foreshadowing is often employed, which helps to remind the audience that the couple are fighting an inescapable fate. It also provides a sense of dramatic irony, as the audience knows that the characters’ premonitions will come true. An example of this follows Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech. Romeo worries that “some consequence yet hanging in the stars” will result in “some vile forfeit of untimely death”. This is particularly ironic as the audience know that both he and Juliet will die as a result of their meeting that night. Another example can be found at the end of Mercutio and Tybalt’s fight. Mercutio knows that he is mortally wounded and cries out “a plague a’ both your houses”. This comes true; both as the deaths of Romeo and Juliet and the actual plague which delays Friar John and means the message never gets to Romeo, which leads to their suicides.

These words again remind the audience of the tragedy. It is also reminiscent of biblical plagues. To the Elizabethan audience, the curse of a dying man was extremely ominous and when Romeo and Juliet, a Montague and a Capulet, die at the end, the curse comes true. This would not be missed by the audience and would remind them of the hand fate had in the young couple’s terrible destiny. A third and final example is when Juliet has a vision of Romeo, dead at the bottom of a tomb. This again is foreshadowing, showing the importance of destiny in the final outcome of the play. Juliet says “Methinks I see thee, now thou are so low, as one dead in the bottom of a tomb”. The audience know that Romeo will indeed die, making her prediction true.

Whilst ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is usually interpreted in the same way, it can also be read differently. Normally, it is assumed that in their deaths they are fulfilling their destinies, but it could also be taken to mean that they have beaten fate. Shakespeare gives the two characters very powerful, poetic language when they are talking to or about each other. An example of this is in the balcony scene, when Romeo calls Juliet “bright angel” and says her eyes are “two of the fairest stars in all the heavens”. In this way it could be said that they are placed above the stars which should be controlling the courses of their lives. Their destiny is never to be together, but by killing themselves they are united in death.

Another potential interpretation of the play is that they are placed on the same level as fate. This is done by the way they use a lot of imagery relating to the stars. Romeo says that “Juliet is the sun”, whilst she compares him to the stars. This shows them as being equal to the stars of fate and fortune. It also shows that they both regard each other very highly – in calling Juliet “the sun” Romeo is saying that she is the largest and the brightest of the stars, which of course they believe control the fortunes of everyone. Therefore not only is he saying that he place Juliet with the stars that control every aspect of his life, he believe she is the brightest and most beautiful part of it – perhaps the brightest part of his destiny.

In my opinion, whilst ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is probably the most famous love story of al time, I believe it is just that – a love story. However, others might say it is a moral tale. In acting on their ‘animalistic’ passions and physical desires the young lovers are doing shocking things. The couple also go against their parents to get married, which would be greatly frowned upon. Some would say that their tragic demise shows that these actions never pay and is a method of discouraging people from doing anything similar.

When Romeo is giving his final soliloquy, he is inside the Capulet crypt. He is looking at the bodies of Juliet and Tybalt. He is also quite mentally unbalanced, as can be seen by some of the things he says. This is unsurprising considering what he has been through in the past few days. He has fallen in love, got married secretly, seen his best friend die and killed two men [Tybalt and Paris]. He has also been banished and has now returned to find his beloved wife apparently dead. His emotions are in turmoil, a mixture of grief, anger and jealousy. He uses the soliloquy to convey his feelings to the audience, as was common at the time. It also allows the audience to feel more involved in the play, as the character is speaking directly to them.

At the start of the speech, Romeo speaks of “Death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath”. This personifies Death and gives it an identity as a ghoulish creature. This idea is reinforced when, later, he speaks of Death as “lean abhorred monster”. This shows Romeo’s fragile state of mind, as he appears to want to be able to blame someone, for example Death, for Juliet’s tragic demise.

Romeo also focuses on Juliet’s continuing beauty. He observes that “beauty’s ensign” is still “crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks”, rather than being pale as one would expect a corpse to be. The audience would find this ironic as they know that the “crimson” coming back to her face is a sign that she is beginning to wake up. This ‘crimson’ is the red found in the cheeks of all living people, which is absent from dead bodies – therefore this means that Juliet (as the audience know) is not dead. This dramatic irony is continued when Juliet wakes only moments after Romeo has drunk the poison. This emphasises the cruel fate which is forcing the two lovers apart, when a difference of just seconds would allow them to be together.

Romeo then turns his attentions to the body of Tybalt, lying nearby under a “bloody sheet”. He remarks “What more favour can I do to thee, / than with this hand that cut thy youth in twain / to sunder his that was thine enemy?” This is saying that in killing himself, as he plans, he will be doing Tybalt a favour. He then cries out “Forgive me, cousin!” This exclamation (complete with exclamation mark), shows that he may also have another motive for this part of the speech. Whilst he may be truly sorry, and trying to put his conscience to rest before he ends his life, he may also be trying to gain the forgiveness of God. Knowing that his suicide will jeopardise his chance of going to heaven, he might be trying to absolve his sins, as if it is his last chance of going to heaven, where he believes he will be reunited with Juliet.

Romeo then moves on to wonder if the reason Death has taken his Juliet away is that he wants her for his lover. He wonders if “unsubstantial death is amorous” and asks desperately if the “lean abhorred monster” has taken Juliet to be his “paramour”. The use of this metaphor helps once more to give Death an identity. These few lines show Romeo’s irrational jealousy of anyone who he believes is too close to Juliet, such as the way he challenged and killed Paris when he saw him paying his respects to her grave. In this case, he is clearly jealous of Death. This is also ironic as the audience know that Death has not taken Juliet at all; she is still alive. He is also showing the extent of his jealousy, saying that “for fear of that” he will end his own life to stay with Juliet.

Towards the end of the speech, Romeo mentions that he wishes to “shake the yoke of inauspicious stars”. This shows that he knows that he has been “Fortune’s Fool” throughout the play and he is now tired of it. As “Fortune’s Fool” he means that he feels that fortune has been toying with him, and when things started to go right, sending a cruel twist of fate to once again turn everything against him, such as when he married Juliet, and then later that day was banished, apparently never to see her again. He speaks of his “world-wearied flesh”, referring to the rollercoaster of events and emotions that he has experienced over the past four days. In calling the stars controlling his destiny a “yoke”, Shakespeare is emphasising the fact that Romeo feels his fate is hanging around his neck, choking him. He decides to challenge his fate and kill himself, not realising hat in his suicide he is fulfilling his destiny.

Finally, Romeo begins to say goodbye. He encourages his eyes to “look your last!” and takes his ‘last kiss’ from the lips of his beloved. He speaks of himself as a “desperate pilot” now beached upon “dashing rocks”. By this he means that he can no longer continue to navigate a winding path around all the treacherous obstacles that fate has put in his way. He finishes the part of the speech before he drinks the bottle of poison by toast Juliet – “Here’s to my love!” His last words are dramatic, saying “Thus with a kiss I die”, kissing Juliet one last time and sinking to the ground, dead.

It is not only the language used by Shakespeare which shows the tragedy of the story. Throughout the soliloquy, Romeo uses rhetorical questions, despairingly asking Juliet “why art thou yet so fair?” This shows his unstable state of mind, in that he is talking to a dead person. It also draws attention to the dramatic irony, as the audience know that the reason for Juliet’s lasting beauty is that she is not yet dead, and is I fact beginning to wake up, hence her “crimson” lips and cheeks. There are also exclamation marks scattered throughout the speech, for example in the toast “Here’s to my love!” and when he is saying “Eyes, look your last!” This provides instruction for the actor playing the part, telling him how to say the words, and making him emphasise the line. It also shows Romeo’s emotions; his overwhelming passion for Juliet and his unbearable distress at her death.

The length of the speech also helps to build up tension. The audience know that any second now, Juliet will wake up. The speech is drawn out, making the audience tense, as they wait to see whether Juliet will rouse herself in time to save Romeo’s life. It also gives Romeo time to fully express his emotions, therefore making the audience feel sympathetic towards him. Throughout the soliloquy, the audience would be shouting; they would be telling Romeo that Juliet was not dead, but in fact under the influence, now wearing out, of a strong sleeping draught. They would also be hoping that Juliet would wake up in time to prevent Romeo’s suicide, whilst knowing – from the prologue – that she will not. Attention is also once more drawn to the overwhelming tragedy of the situation.

The powerful language used in Romeo’s final speech would have had quite a major impact on the audience. Metaphors such as “lean abhorred monster” show the extent of Romeo’s profound feelings. The use of exclamation marks throughout the speech would also help to highlight this, drawing attention to the lines in question. This, as well as the overall length of the speech, would have had quite an effect on the audience. They would have been shouting encouragement and advice to the characters and perhaps pointing or throwing things onto the stage. Obviously this is different to the way modern audiences behave, sitting silently in the dark. I believe that Shakespeare was very effective in emphasising the sense of tragedy in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, because the audience always ends up hoping that something will happen to avert the dreadful consequences of their actions and their tragic destiny. This shows that the sense of tragedy is very strongly portrayed, as the audience become very aware of it. When Romeo and Juliet commit suicide, they believe that they have defied the stars, whereas I think that they have simply fulfilled their destiny. This is tragic as it shows that there is nothing they could have done to save themselves.

In my opinion, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is tragic for this very reason. Every effort they made just took them one step closer to their eventual, and inescapable, deaths. The way that they could not have done anything to stop it happening emphasises, in my opinion, the sense of tragedy, However, I do not believe that the repeated use of foreshadowing makes it any more tragic. Whilst it highlights the dramatic irony, the only other purpose, in my view, is to remind the audience that what they were told in the prologue – that both Romeo and Juliet will die – is going to come true.

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How does Shakespeare use language and stagecraft?. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

How does Shakespeare use language and stagecraft?

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