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Drama requires four main things – a crisis or incident, conflict, suspense, and a resolution towards the end of the drama. Shakespeare uses all of theses devices to full effect during the course of Romeo and Juliet, with the intent of creating interest for the audience, either contemporary or modern day.
The first device, we meet immediately in the Prologue. The prologue is performed by the chorus, which originates in Greek theatre around centuries 5 and 6 B.C. The chorus acts as a narrator for the audience, explaining what has already happened, and in this case, what will happen.
The prologue in Romeo and Juliet also sets up some of the main themes that run throughout the play. The theme of fate would have been very important to a contemporary audience, people in Shakespeare’s time put a lot of faith in fate and destiny, and therefore would take a great interest in the path the characters and story will be forced to take.
The prologue introduces this theme almost immediately, hinting that it will be a strong force, and instrumental in the direction the plot will take.
‘From forth the fatal loins of these two foes.
A pair of star – crossed lovers take their life.’
Another theme that is important from the start of the play, and continues to be a driving force behind the action is the theme of conflict.
‘From ancient grudge break to new mutiny’
The conflict between the two families (the Montagues and the Capulets) has been going on for many years before the audience joins the action.
This makes us feel as if we’ve come in halfway through the action, transporting us immediately into the world of the play and capturing our interest as to what happened before we arrived on the scene Likewise, the first scene we see is a fierce street brawl between the two families. Dramatic tension is created when the Prince arrives and delivers an ultimatum, anyone caught fighting in the streets will be sentenced to death. This becomes the crisis that will later drive the story towards the climax.
One of the most successful devices that Shakespeare uses is the characters themselves. The audience follows them through the play, seeing changes in the characters, and how they will affect both each other and the plot.
The two characters who undergo the most dramatic and sudden changes are, of course Romeo and Juliet themselves. We first meet Romeo having heard Lady Montague and Benvolio talking about him –
‘Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out,
And makes himself an artificial night,
Black and portentous must this humour be.’
This gives us as an audience an idea of his mood and character at this point. When Romeo enters, his language is extremely poetic and heavy with the use of oxymorons, reflecting how confused his feelings are.
‘O heavy lightness, serious vanity. Bright smoke, cold fire, sick health’
This helps reveal more of Romeos character. He is lovesick, deeply in love with Rosaline (who incidentally, we never meet) but we are told that she does not return his feelings. He is so in love with her that he doesn’t do or think about anything else. Why then, does he fall so deeply and instantly in love with Juliet? A contemporary audience would view this as an act of fate, Romeo and Juliet are destined to fall in love, to die and end their family’s feud. The quality of his love changes instantly. He goes from a rather forced, unhappy, and unrequited love to a joyful, almost worshipful love. Therefore his whole character and demeanour change when he catches sight of Juliet, his language also changes, the oxymorons are no longer used, his language becomes evocative and there is now a heavy use of similes and metaphors, all comparing Juliet’s beauty.
‘It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night,
Like a rich jewel in and Ethiop’s ear’
‘So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows’
A different view on Romeo’s character, as written in ‘A pocket Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays’ by Kenneth McLeish and Stephen Unwin, is that Romeo is the ringleader of a gang of overbred young men with too much time on their hands. They say that his love for Rosaline at the beginning of the play is pure bravado rather than true feelings. I disagree with this view; his language is far too wistful and dreamy to be bravado. Also, Shakespeare intended for him to be unhappily in love with Rosaline, as she doesn’t return his feelings. If his love was born out of bravado rather than true feeling, he would certainly not be unhappy about it.
During the course of the play Juliet’s character also changes rapidly. She starts as a headstrong, naï¿½ve young girl, and within two days (or 3 Acts) she is married, deeply in love, and ready to give her life rather than be parted from Romeo. Some aspects of her character however, do not change. She is still a girl in many ways, undecided and flirtatious. For example, in the famous balcony scene (Act 2, Scene 2) she is indecisive and girlish, changing her mind constantly, and then worrying that she is being too forward with Romeo. Within the space of thirty lines, she has changed her mind at least three times. This impetuous part of her character comes through in a different light in Act 3 scene 4 when she takes the drug given to her by Friar Lawrence. She is having doubts about taking the drug, having previously said she would rather die than be without Romeo.
By the end scenes of the play, both Romeo and Juliet have grown up considerably. Juliet is less adolescent, and Romeo is more mature and is beginning to act like a young man. This is echoed by their language when together. There are many religious references, and their words to each other are poetic and almost worshipping –
‘This holy shrine’
‘Aye, pilgrims lips that they must use in prayer.’
‘O then dear saint, let lips do what hands do.
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.’
The two characters who I think have a great deal of dramatic importance within the play are Mercutio and Tybalt. They both have very fiery characters, and neither thinks before acting, which in the end leads to their deaths. The deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt are the trigger for the chain of events that leads to the climax of the play. Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished, this drives Juliet to agree to marry Paris and then to take Friar Lawrence’s potion. This in turn causes the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Thus they have fulfilled the destiny laid out for them by fate. Benvolio however is the complete opposite to both Mercutio and Tybalt which causes a great deal of dramatic tension, having a calm, rational character between the two fieriest. The name ‘Benvolio’ comes from the Italian ‘Bene’ meaning ‘good’. He can also be seen as the voice of reason in certain scenes. In Act 3 scene 1 he explains to the Prince about the fight truthfully, and with no exaggeration of the facts.
Friar Lawrence is instrumental in bringing the plot to its climax; he is also partly to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Had he not married them, the plot would not have turned out the way it did. Also, the Shakespearian audience would have had a lot of faith and trust in religious figures, raising the dramatic tension for a contemporary audience when Friar Lawrence agrees to marry the lovers illegally, and later provides Juliet with the drug that causes Romeo to think her dead.
The themes within the play all affect the characters and influence the way they act, and their decisions. The characters of Romeo and Juliet are heavily influenced by love, and Mercutio and Tybalt by anger and conflict. Ultimately, all of the characters are affected by conflict, and most of all by fate. If Romeo had not gone to the ball, he would not have fallen in love with Juliet; Tybalt would not have sworn revenge against him and killed Mercutio, and so on. A contemporary audience would have seen this as the path fate intended for the characters, whereas a modern audience would also have believed this to some degree, perhaps not as strongly as a contemporary audience.
The way that a contemporary audience would perceive the idea of fate is also very important. From the very beginning we are informed that Romeo and Juliet are determined by fate to fall in love, die, and therefore resolve their parents’ grudge. Because of this, a contemporary audience would pick up on the numerous references to fate much more than a modern audience would. The continuous references from different characters leave little doubt that this is the only path that Romeo and Juliet’s love can take.
‘The fearful passage of their death – marked love’ Prologue
‘Had part in this fair maid, now heaven hath all.’ Act 4 scene 5
‘And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars’ Act 5 scene 3
Something that as an audience I find very interesting is the structure and time span of the play. The action is twenty four hours a day, and the whole story takes place in just over four days, reflecting the speed and intensity of the action and of Romeo and Juliet’s love for each other.
The way that Shakespeare arranges the scenes is both clever and engaging. We see a character exit a scene, and re – enter the next almost immediately. For example in Act 1 scene 5 (the ballroom scene) we see Romeo exit ,and in Act 2 scene1 we see him enter, as if he has walked from one scene straight into the next. This structure only changes towards the end of the play, when the action is becoming more frantic, and the focus starts to switch rapidly between scenes and characters. This raises the tension even further for the audience, as the scenes become shorter and the action moves faster, and the audience is unable to move whilst everything around us starts to speed up. Like the characters in the play, we are seeing the results of the action, but are powerless to stop it.
Shakespeare uses many different devices to capture an audience’s attention and create dramatic interest. The language, plot and themes are all powerful elements that appealed to Elizabethan audiences, and still appeal to audiences today. He uses strong characters with a definite destiny, and issues that appeal to both modern day and contemporary audiences.
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