Thursday 2 May 2024

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a cautionary tale


Almost everyone we encounter in the play bears some responsibility for the ensuing multi-death tragedy.


Almost everyone in the play contributes to the tragic deaths of young people. A story not so much about love but a call to change a society where your actions, inactions or mistakes can kill you or someone else. Other named characters such as Rosaline are blameless and therefore do not appear.

A warning sign depicting abstract images of Romeo wooing Juliet, in front of walled Verona.
Warning: unauthorised wall-scaling and poetic pickup lines in progress

First, we will run through Romeo and Juliet the play and pick out relevant moments.

Then, we will analyse themes and language.

Finally, we will say what the play is not, before tendering our conclusion.

Notes on language

In this article, 'parents' is used as a shorthand for parents/guardians/primary caregivers and all comparable roles. In the play, the parents of interest are the couples: Montagues and Capulets.

Key Quotations from the Play, with Brief Notes, Scene Summaries and Questions


Here we encounter the ancient grudge that informs the rest of the play.

Act 1

A1s1 Capulet servants Sampson and Gregory exhibit bravado, belligerence and sexualised threats; they pick a fight with servants of Montague with foreknowledge that this quarrel may lead to tyrannous behaviour and harm to innocents. Sampson: Draw, if you be men Benvolio tries to keep peace.

Tybalt: “What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word,
  As I hate hell, all Montagues and thee:
  Have at thee, coward.”

Tybalt especially shows wilful misinterpretation to exaggerate threats to justify violent response. Citizens seek to put down brawl with clubs while Capulet calls for long sword to match Montague. Prince threatens them with torture and death:

Three civil broils, bred of an airy word,
By thee, old Capulet and Montague,
Have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets;

Far from fray, Romeo tells Benvolio of his groaning unrequited love for a woman who has foresworn love.

A1s2 Paris sues Capulet for his daughter’s hand but Capulet says she is too young:

My child is yet a stranger in the world,
She hath not seen the change of fourteen years;
Let two more summers wither in their pride,
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.

but will see if she will become amenable. Do characters simulate more in verse? Servant cannot read list of party guests: is illiteracy a contributory factor to civil ills? Literate characters may manipulate illiterate ones. Benvolio names Rosaline as Romeo’s love.

A1s3 Nurse reckons Juliet’s age a fortnight and odd days short of 14 years, a similar age to her own dead daughter Susan. Lady Capulet tells Juliet she was married at a similar early age and other ladies are already mothers by 14 so Paris?

Juliet: “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move:
  But no more deep will I endart mine eye,
  Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.”

We discover over time that Juliet is under intense and urgent pressure to conform to her parents’ wishes, which transmit to servants.

Servant: “Madam, the guests are come, supper served up, you called,
  my young lady asked for, the nurse cursed in the pantry, and every thing in extremity.
  I must hence to wait; I beseech you, follow straight.”

A1s4 Romeo prepares to gatecrash his familial enemy’s swanky party, bolstered by banter. Mercutio’s intense and rambling speech seems sign of a disordered mind; perhaps he fears he cannot speak clearly and plainly even to his closest friends.

A1s5 Romeo sees Juliet and mentally dumps Rosaline. Tybalt, overhearing him, storms but is checked by Capulet, who is strangely well-disposed towards Romeo, or at least wants his party to go smoothly. Romeo and Juliet flirt, until Nurse reveals her to be Capulet’s heiress daughter. As Romeo leaves, Juliet learns his identity (stranger in the world, remember).

Act 2

A2s1 Romeo scales Capulet’s garden wall, ditching friends and their possibly restraining advice.

A2s2 Romeo overhears Juliet pining for him, they talk of peril, their families’ enmity, love, oaths, marriage all with unseemly precipitous haste and on very little acquaintance. This unfathomable speed and secrecy is a caution in itself: who knows what young ones are up to? Romeo seeks collaborator in Franciscan Friar Laurence.


Friar Laurence: “Be plain, good son, and homely in thy drift;
  Riddling confession finds but riddling shrift.”
Romeo: “Then plainly know, my heart’s dear love is set
  On the fair daughter of rich Capulet:”

Friar ridicules Romeo’s prior doting on Rosaline, says young men love with eyes not hearts, but because he has another motive (ending the feud) he agrees.

A2s4 Benvolio and Mercutio talk of duels and Tybalt’s fencing prowess. Romeo jests, Nurse arrives from Juliet, they arrange secret wedding for afternoon.

A2s5 Juliet is impatient that Nurse who left at 9 is not back before noon. Nurse arrives, spins out her tale of Romeo arranging wedding at Friar Laurence’s cell. Juliet: Hie to high fortune! — honest nurse, farewell.

Is the Nurse honest if she doesn’t tell her employers she is helping Juliet marry secretly in opposition to their choice?

A2s6 Friar: These violent delights have violent ends, yet marries Romeo and Juliet in secret haste; perhaps also feels they will sin if left alone.

Act 3

A3s1 Mercutio says Benvolio will attack a harmless waiter after two cups of wine and quarrel over anything. Benvolio replies Mercutio is worse. What is the cause of their distemper? Tybalt arrives and it kicks off, Romeo arriving, Benvolio attempting to calm. Mercutio thinks Romeo’s pleasant response to Tybalt’s hate is appeasement. Mercutio, dying, curses both houses. Incensed, Romeo slays Tybalt in revenge, then flees. Benvolio gives accurate account to Prince, who banishes Romeo on pain of death. Prince: Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill.

A3s2 Juliet waits impatiently for Romeo, Nurse appears with cord ladder and news that someone (Tybalt) is dead, Romeo banished, while Juliet imagines dying, and that Romeo’s beautiful outside hides an opposite nature. They agree Nurse will bring Romeo.

A3s3 Romeo also takes news from Friar of banishment with melodrama, at length. Nurse arrives and with Friar eventually shame some sense into Romeo: to Juliet, then Mantua to await developments.

A3s4 Capulet still wants to hurry Juliet’s wedding with Paris, who can hardly wait. Fewer guests out of ‘respect’ for Tybalt.

A3s5 Juliet and Romeo, marriage consummated, tarry in her bedchamber. They part thinking on death again. Lady Capulet thinks Juliet cries too much for Tybalt, says she’ll send a poisoner to Mantua to kill Romeo in revenge. Juliet is shocked by the ‘haste’ her parents want to see her wed Paris.

Juliet: “I wonder at this haste; that I must wed
  Ere he, that should be husband, comes to woo,”
Lady Capulet: “I would, the fool were married to her grave!”
Capulet: “Out, you green sickness carrion! out, you baggage!”

Nurse stands up for Juliet:

God in heaven bless her! —
  You are to blame, my lord, to rate her so.
Capulet: “An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;
  An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die i’th streets,”

Juliet seeks delay or death; parents leave and she seeks comfort from Nurse… who, likely thinking on her own dead Susan, betrays Juliet by switching to back Paris and an unrealistic living make-do. Juliet pretends to relent, Nurse leaves to tell Capulets good news.

Juliet: “Ancient damnation! … Go, counsellor;
  Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain.”

Either the Friar will help, or Juliet considers taking the suicide option.

Act 4


Friar: “You say, you do not know the lady’s mind;
  Uneven is the course, I like it not.”

Paris claims Capulet thinks Juliet’s grief for Tybalt is dangerous, and hasty marriage a cure. Juliet arrives and easily gets the better of Paris, dismissing him and saying Friar better have a solution to Romeo’s banishment, or she’ll kill herself:

I long to die,
If what thou speak’st speak not of remedy.

Friar offers a desperate, daring, dangerous hope. Fake your death, Juliet! Juliet eagerly accepts his offered drug.

A4s2 Juliet feigns obedience to Capulet who accepts her volte-face explanation that Friar taught her obedience in one session.

Juliet: “Henceforth I am ever rul’d by you.”
Capulet: “my heart is wondrous light,
  Since this same wayward girl is so reclaim’d”

A4s3 Juliet wonders if she should call back Nurse and mother, or drink the unknown drug, or kill herself with dagger?

Juliet: “What if it be a poison, which the friar
  Subtly have minister’s to have me dead”

to avoid dishonour for Romeo marriage. What horrors might confront her in the tomb? She drinks.

A4s4 The Capulets and servants are busy with wedding preparations, the external forms of the planned relationship.

Capulet: “Go, waken Juliet, go, and trim her up;
  I’ll go and chat with Paris: — Hie, make haste,”

A4s5 Nurse tries to waken Juliet, fails. She, Capulets, Paris, household bar Friar think she’s dead. Lamentation (and some nasty blame from Paris). Friar: think of it as a promotion.

Act 5

A5s1 In Mantua, Romeo dreams of death, then learning of Juliet’s ‘death’ and burial seeks poison from desperate apothecary:

Such mortal drugs I have; but Mantua’s law
Is death, to any he that utters them.
Romeo: “I pay thy poverty, and not thy will.”
  “There is gold, worse poison to men’s souls,
  Doing more murders in this loathsome world,
  Than these poor compounds that thou may’st not sell:”

(which didn’t put Romeo off the fair daughter of rich Capulet!)

A5s2 Friar learns his letter never reached Romeo in Mantua and hastens tombward.

A5s3 Why exactly does Paris hope to gain by sneaking into Juliet’s tomb? Romeo says he is going to see Juliet’s face…

But, chiefly, to take thence from her dead finger
A precious ring; a ring that I must use
In dear employment

but servant Balthasar has his doubts and hangs about. Paris sees Romeo as Montague who partly caused Juliet’s death by killing Tybalt. They needlessly fight, Paris ignoring Romeo’s plea to leave, Romeo kills Paris, sees, speechifies to and kisses Juliet, then drinks poison and dies. [only seconds too soon…] Friar arrives too late, talks with Balthasar.

[Events appear to be taking on a dreamlike quality] Juliet awakes but Friar fails to rescue her, if secretly stuffing her into a nunnery counts. Poison failing, Juliet stabs herself to death with Romeo’s dagger. Watch apprehend Friar and everybody else turns up for a gawk. Prince holds an impromptu court; Friar and others testify, Romeo’s letter corroborates. Prince lays blame on feuding Capulets and Montagues, who say they’ll patch up quarrels, raise statues and make amends.

Prince: “And I, for winking at your discords too,
  Have lost a brace of kinsmen: — all are punish’d.”

Prince doesn’t yet specify who will be further punished or pardoned, at least implying the form of due process.

Themes and Language

Given this reading as a cautionary tale, it is essential to include language on themes such as suicidal intentions, since these are things that others should be picking up and listening to; and that Juliet’s young age (13 going on 14) be respected (or intervention be too late).

Some other warning signs or contributive factors to the play's tragedies include:

  • Secretive behaviour (both the Nurse and the Friar encourage this, perhaps such encouragement often has comedic results in plays).
  • Sexualised speech (where inappropriate and/or threatening, such as the banter which creates an atmosphere of intimidation or lewdness which is divisive).
  • Unreasonable and excessive haste (a general fault, oft-mentioned word in the play).
  • Quarrelsomeness; aggression.
  • Ulterior motives (civil peace; rich heiress).
  • Displacement, transference, confusion (Nurse’s Susan, see later).
  • Personal pride and ambition.
  • People who think both Romeo and Juliet need to be fixed (I don’t mean neutered).
  • Children who learn to tell parents what they want to hear etc. Juliet lies to father about being ruled by him, but doesn’t bother lying to Paris, instead deftly fooling him. Parents should watch for sudden obedience.
  • Frustrated competition, either banned, unsafe (like duels) or precluded (like courtship).
  • Suppression of other opportunities (to learn, to interact, to show true colours, to escape class or gendered roles).
  • Inconstant counsel (Nurse particularly).
  • Betrayal of trust (Nurse again, though very likely with Juliet's longterm wellbeing in mind).
  • Machiavellian tendencies; meddling (Friar, albeit with perhaps good and sincere intentions).
  • Both young and old can be giddy and serious at the same time — seriousness does not require deep or sustained reflection nor constancy.
  • Sole heirs (especially under dynastic societies, these are typically subject to considerable pressures).
  • Overconfidence; simplification; lack of contingency planning (particularly the Friar).
  • Feuding; grudge-keeping; avenging kin (Capulets particularly, for Tybalt).
  • Deceit.
  • Possibly undue leniency (Prince thinks so).
  • Undeservedly harsh parental treatment (Capulets on Juliet).
  • Emotional blackmail.
  • Religious injunctions on obedience.
  • Autocracy; hierarchy.
  • Lack of empathy.

Is faking your own death ever the answer?

Poverty is not vice but desperation leads people to consider lawbreaking (the Apothecary).

Puberty transforms (Juliet) while parents may sometimes be too slow or too quick to anticipate changes. It is Juliet's linguistic skill, quick wit and pure determination that lets her wrongfoot the adults about her, who all seem to underestimate her (except perhaps Romeo, hence their almost-instant connection).

I won't go through all these aspects in detail, but consider how at any point the play's actions may be changed to avoid the tragedies.

What the Play is Not

Romeo and Juliet is not a love story. Yet one of the first thing Romeo says is that these broils may have as much to do with love as hate (as factionalism and in-out group psychology shows). Without much doubt, the truest love shown in the play appears to be the Nurse's for Juliet, who she treats like a surrogate daughter, always prattling happily on about her and running errands for her. However, even this love is notably imperfect, as the Nurse may be transferring her love for her dead daughter Susan on to Juliet. Indeed, we don't know if the Nurse's anecdotes about Juliet's infancy were not actually (misremembered) incidents from Susan's childhood. And in the crucial pivot of the play, the Nurse breaks faith with Juliet, preferring a 'safer' marriage with Paris and a live surrogate daughter to a Juliet pining over banished Romeo and suicidal ideation.

The play is not a comedy (though it shares some common comedic components, the remaining cast are united in grief not marriage), nor a typical tragedy (yet undoubtedly tragic in key elements). It has action but not of epic scale. It is not the stuff of history plays, yet it could be local history.

Unlike her parents’ choice, Romeo is Juliet’s alone, just as Juliet is Romeo’s alone (call her mine); this possessiveness (a mansion, robes) combines with deathwishes and nightlonging. Capulet attempts minionisation of Juliet. Both Romeo and Juliet seek to avoid traps. At what point in play do caring adults fail to understand Juliet’s inner life? From the very start? Which is mirrored by Romeo’s interiority. Shouldn’t Romeo and Juliet be Goths? Nurse knows what a dead child looks like, as do Capulets. Romeo bespeaks Tybalt and Paris fair but kills both aggressors.

So the story is probably much closer to social realism than the common comedies, tragedies, tragicomedies, epics, histories that Shakespeare's audiences were likely more familiar with. The question is: why?


If Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet as a socially-realistic play, where audience members may have recognised characters like themselves or people they knew, acting in quite believable ways which collectively ended in tragedy, then for what reasons?

I think it is highly plausible that many Shakespeare's plays are intended in main or part to increase empathy and appreciation of the value of human lives. I've already written something about Shakespeare's blood-savers. One could argue (and I would) that many lives may have been saved over the years by plays such as Othello, which should at least make jealous husbands think before murdering their wives (likewise A Winter's Tale, and so on and on).

But in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's focus shifts to children and young people, in the grip of powerful emotions, trapped by circumstance, daring to look death in the eye. I think, quite simply, Shakespeare wants to make us think of them, their worlds, their ambitions, their frailties, their hopes and dreams… and not crush them. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a cautionary tale. For all of us.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a cautionary tale by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

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