The Supporting Cast


Commentary Table of Contents | Previous Page | Next page

On this page:
Romeo bids farewell

"Minor" characters

My discussion of the play so far has been stimulated in large measure by one character, Mercutio. From his wit a whole range of explorative ideas are generated. But Mercutio is, relatively speaking, a minor character in Romeo and Juliet. Can you say that the equivalent minor characters in The Taming of the Shrew are as interesting? Compare Tybalt, Benvolio and Mercutio to the three who woo Bianca. You will immediately see how much more varied the characters are in Romeo and Juliet.

And the range of fully imagined characters in Romeo and Juliet does not end with the young men. Taking your cue from Coleridge's emphasis on character, prepare a brief analysis of the characterization of each of the following, listing the lines or scenes you find most helpful in thinking about them: Paris, Old Capulet, Lady Capulet, Benvolio, Tybalt, Friar Lawrence, and (of course!) the Nurse. Think particularly of the attitudes each expresses towards love. You may find some gaps here (Tybalt, for example), but even if they do not express themselves on the subject directly, you can in most cases see what their attitude is by their actions, and their response to the young lovers. (I am thinking particularly of Capulet, the Nurse, and Paris.)

Is there a similarity between Paris and the Romeo of the early scenes, still thinking he is in love with Rosalind?

Is the variety of characters and their approaches to love similar in effect to the kinds of enquiry stimulated by the "Blackforest cake" technique of A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It?

Do you find the same kind of layering and variation in The Taming of the Shrew or Much Ado About Nothing?

In Othello?

[Return to top]

Romeo and Juliet: Light and Dark

So far the study of the play has been circling around the central characters, exploring the nature of the tragedy, and the richness of the characterization of peripheral characters. Focus now on Romeo and Juliet themselves. Look particularly at the way love and suffering together force them within the short time the play covers to grow from girl and boy to woman and man.

What distinctions in character can you make between the two young lovers?

The Lovers Meet

Listen to the taped performances of the scenes between Romeo and Juliet as you work through this section, and consider the particular interpretations brought to the parts by Chris Gaze and Merrilyn Gann.

We already know Romeo quite well by the time he goes to the Capulet's ball, but Juliet has so far spoken only about half a dozen lines (1. 3), dutiful words spoken by an apparently characterless daughter. There is therefore a double shock when Romeo totally forgets Rosalind, and Juliet's "liking" is moved in a manner certainly contrary to her parents' "consent" (see 1. 3. 97-9).

The sonnet shared between Romeo and Juliet as they first speak to each other (1. 5. 95-108, with an extra quatrain, lines 109-112) is both warm and witty.

What relationship is established between the two in these lines?

Look particularly at the way Juliet takes the images Romeo uses (do you find them a little conventional, a little "courtly"?), and gives them further life.

Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

        (1. 5. 103-4)

What effect on this lyrical scene does the earlier verbal skirmish between Tybalt and Capulet have?

[Return to top]

The "Balcony" Scene

Did you notice that Shakespeare begins this scene with dramatic sleight-of-hand? Romeo begins with a soliloquy (or an aside) which we overhear, but which Juliet does not. When Juliet speaks, it is again in soliloquy, but this time Romeo overhears as well as the audience. In realistic terms it is absurd to think that Juliet would speak her dangerous love aloud, but the stage trick allows Shakespeare to develop both characters rapidly.

Juliet, her love known immediately, is able to be direct and frank in her avowal (see 2. 2. 85-9). Contrast the language Romeo uses, in his semi-soliloquy, with Juliet's.

Is Romeo very different yet from the adolescent in love with Rosalind--or in love with love--that we saw in the earlier scenes, using conventional courtly figures of speech?

Does Juliet use any courtly images to describe her love?

Look at the interchange, lines 62-73, where Juliet shows real concern for Romeo's safety, while Romeo responds with romantic (but quite impractical) images.

How do you respond to Juliet's insistence that Romeo not swear to the extent of his love (107-20)?

Work through the rest of the scene, and see if this difference between the two is further maintained.

Fortune's Fools

Before their love can be consummated, the lovers become entangled in the chain of events which leads to their deaths. Romeo is involved, however unwillingly at first, in the duel with Tybalt.

How would you stage this scene?

(Again, if you have seen the Zeffirelli film, you will certainly remember the devastating effect of Mercutio's mockery and clowning suddenly turning to black comedy as those around realize belatedly that he really is hurt.)

The change in the play from light to dark is illustrated in the two scenes between Juliet and the Nurse (2. 5 and 3. 2). The first scene is wonderfully comic with the teasing Nurse delaying the good news, while Juliet tries to get her to the point; the second painful as the same garrulous indirection in the Nurse torments Juliet as she misunderstands the bad news. Look carefully at the passionate, loving soliloquy by Juliet which precedes this second scene between her and the Nurse. The irony here is powerful, because we already know the bad news the Nurse is about to bring.

[Return to top]

Lark and Nightingale

They are together for the last time, a brief night of happiness. As you listen to 3. 5, notice how the roles of practical and fanciful change for a moment. Juliet now is indulging in wishful thinking, Romeo concerned with the practical necessity of leaving before dawn. But Juliet soon restores her common sense: "More light and light it grows" (35). And as the dawn breaks, darkness descends on the lovers.

For Juliet, suffering begins immediately. She is besieged by her parents--who are organizing her into the marriage with Paris--even before she leaves the stage after her farewell to Romeo. Reasonably enough, she remarks "I wonder at this haste" (3. 5. 119), though the irony in her words is strong, given the haste with which both she and Romeo consummated their love. If there is a single moment when Juliet grows from girl to woman, it is surely at the end of this scene when she turns to the Nurse, her confidante, for help, and is rewarded by astonishingly amoral and insensitive advice (214-27); try reading Juliet's lines yourself to see the levels of self-assurance and conscious irony (unlike her earlier remark about haste) she puts into line 232 ("Well, thou hast comforted me marvellous much").

Love and Death

The intermingling of fate and free will in the play is nowhere more sharply illustrated than by the accident that delays Friar John and prevents him from getting the vital news to Romeo. The excessive haste of the lovers and of those around them, and of course the hatred between the houses, are all the result of free human choices; collectively these choices have brought the lovers to a state of peril, but it is the final cruel accident--arguably Fate--which leads to their deaths.

Suicide was of course condemned by the church as a mortal sin; and even today it is hardly regarded as a heroic or admirable act.

Why is it that the deaths of Romeo and Juliet are so moving?

It is painful to listen to and to read through the last scene again; but as you do so, notice how Romeo has grown. He is still passionate and hasty, as his duel with Paris shows, but he has abandoned fanciful imagery, and he has become more fully aware of his own nature, such that he can warn Paris of the danger of provoking "a desp'rate man" (5. 3. 59). A death speech over the body of a still beautiful woman might have been the occasion for some fine courtly rhetoric, but Romeo's language is controlled, his images graphic and economical.

The speed of the play increases, and Juliet has but a few moments of restored life before she joins Romeo in death; we have seen her growth to maturity earlier, and we are scarcely surprised by her courage and resolution.

[Return to top]


Commentary Table of Contents | Previous Page | Next page

Table of Contents | Study Plan | Self-Test | Background Readings | Study Questions
This page last updated April 10, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best, mbest1@uvic.ca.
© Michael Best, The University of Victoria, and the Open University of B.C.