Romeo and Juliet was written in 1599 by William Shakespeare. The basic plot of Romeo and Juliet was not an original idea, but retold in a new and interesting way by Shakespeare. The key themes in Romeo and Juliet are love, hate, disorder, death and time. In Shakespeare’s time women were not treated as equals to men. They were treated as property and their belongings were considered their husband’s. Lower classes in Shakespeare’s lived in awful conditions and sneered at by the higher classes.
Shakespeare uses this to his advantage in his play because his male characters show high disregard for the opposite sex and for lower classes in society.
Shakespeare’s use of a prologue is extremely effective in the setting the scene for the rest of the play. He creates dramatic irony and tension by talking to the audience “In fair Verona (where we lay our scene)”. This phrase tells the audience where the story is set and makes the audience feel involved in only one line.
“From ancient grudge break to new mutiny” is the third line of the play and already introduces the theme of hate and disorder. It tells the audience that the two families are continuing a feud from a very long time ago and nothing has developed in the way of peace between them.
The first two characters introduced by Shakespeare to the audience are Gregory and Sampson. They are both servants of the house of Capulet. The scene starts off with the two men in a public place.
They are both wearing weapons and shields, which shows that both men are either expecting a fight or looking for one. This immediately introduces the themes of violence and disorder, even if not in great detail. The conversation between the two men is very boisterous and involves them bragging to each other about their ‘manliness’. The men use puns in their conversation e.g. “Sampson – I will cut off their heads. Gregory – The heads of the maids? Sampson – Ay, the heads of the maids – or their maidenheads.” The use of puns in speech shows that the speaker is using humour. The fact that the men are talking with humour about raping and murdering women, shows their disrespect and degrading attitude towards women. This also shows that they are ruthless men who don’t mind killing innocents if it means hurting their enemies, the Montague family. Their attitudes reflect on the Elizabethan view of women at the time of Shakespeare’s writing because they were treated badly and not fully respected. This is another example of disorder in Verona at these times.
Abram and Balthasar are servants of the house of Capulet. Sampson and Gregory meet them in the public place. Sampson insults Abram by biting his thumb at him and in Italy in Shakespeare’s time; this would have been seen as a great insult and a provocative action. By Verona law, if a fight breaks out in public, the person who started the violence is to be arrested and sentenced. This presents a problem for Abram because if he retaliates, he risks arrest and if he ignores the insult, it shows cowardice and makes it look like he is failing his family. An aside is used between Gregory and Sampson which shows their concern about starting a fight. Sampson asks Gregory if it is wise to start a fight and Gregory warns him not to. Ignoring Gregory’s advice, Sampson continues to taunt Abram. When Abram asks Sampson if he bit his thumb at him, Sampson replies, “No, sir, I do not bit my thumb at you, sir. But I do bite my thumb.” When Benvolio enters, the men begin to fight.
Benvolio is the cousin of Romeo and a member of the Montague family. The first impressions of Benvolio are that he is quite intelligent. He knows better than to start a fight in public because it would have bad consequences for both families. He shouts “Part, fools!” to break up the fight and Tybalt enters, the cousin of Juliet. Tybalt’s character juxtaposes with Benvolio’s, because Benvolio believes in keeping the peace, whereas Tybalt only thinks about killing his enemies and is full of hate. This can be seen in the tone of the characters lines. The juxtaposition creates a tension that makes the audience fell that a fight could break out at any moment. It also brings back the themes of peace and disorder and puts them into the forms of Benvolio and Tybalt.
When Prince Escalus enters the stage, the tension build up again because the audience can tell that he is extremely angry. The prince refers to the men in both families as beasts which is a metaphor to show that he views them as animals with no control over their actions. He threatens the men with the death penalty which shows the audience that the fight wasn’t the first one between the families and that this time he had no patience left. The prince’s threat is ironic because he threatens the families with death, and one member from each of their families dies, Romeo and Juliet, but neither of them were involved with the fighting.
When the audience first meets Romeo, he comes across as quite a distant character because he recites poetry and has obviously not been involved with the fight which shows that he doesn’t have a nature as violent as some of his friends. Romeo tells Benvolio that he is sad and that the days seem long because he is in love with a girl who doesn’t love him back. Shakespeare uses metaphors; phrases which say that something is something else to describe its nature, to express Romeo’s current poetic mood. He also uses oxymorons such as ‘cold fire’ and ‘sick health’ to show Romeo’s state of confusion caused by love. ‘Cold fire’, for example, shows Romeo’s thoughts of passion that have been somewhat dampened by the fact that he is not loved back. This is the first real introduction of the key theme of love, which is very important in the play.
Shakespeare uses stage directions to raise tension in the play. The Elizabethan audience would have thought that sword fights were exciting and tense so the fight itself adds action and excitement to the whole play, and emphasises the hatred between the two families. Shakespeare uses side directions to cue the actors on their actions. The ‘aside’ direction means that the character speaks to a partner or the audience on his own, which causes the feeling of dramatic irony where the audience feel that they know more than some of the characters. To cue the fight, Shakespeare uses the direction ‘They fight’. The lack of detail in the direction shows that the actors are supposed to improvise on the fighting which gives the scene a feeling of authenticity. The fight introduces the theme of violence to the play.
The key themes introduced in the first scene are disorder and love. Because the themes are introduced early in the play, the audience know that the themes will be viewed in more detail throughout the play. The themes set the whole tone of the play to let the audience know what type of play Romeo and Juliet is. The fact that they know this increases the effect of dramatic irony because they know what is happening and that the outcome will involve love, hate, disorder and time.