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Romeo and Juliet: Act Summaries
Take a look at our act by act Romeo and Juliet summary to help you get to know the plot.
The play opens with a Prologue, a device Shakespeare abandoned in his later works. The Chorus tells us what will happen in the play. Modern audiences find this odd- where’s the suspense? It would seem Shakespeare’s audience had other priorities. Can the play still move us if we know how it will end?
The action of the play, in the most famous love story ever written, starts with hate – a street brawl between Capulets and Montagues. The servants provoke each other, which shows how deep- rooted the feud must be. We meet the elders of both families, plus Tybalt (a Capulet) and Benvolio (a Montague), but not yet the two main characters. The Prince ends the fight and warns the families to not do it again.
Montague knows little of his son’s activities. He has to ask Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin, what Romeo is up to. When Romeo appears he shows little interest in the feud, being love-struck for Rosaline and Benvolio advises that he meets other girls!
There are early signs that the feud might fizzle out, but Benvolio and Romeo decide to gate crash a Montague party because Rosaline will be there.
We meet a very young Juliet. Girls married much younger in those days- to maximize their fertility and because people didn’t live for so long. Romeo finds it easier to use a go-between, here the Nurse, to talk to her. She and the Nurse discuss marriage with Paris, whom Juliet has never met. She is dutifully obedient.
Mercutio, who belongs to neither family, accompanies his friends Romeo and Benvolio to the feast. He has a highly excitable personality, full of verbal invention and wit. Romeo has a vision as he enters the Capulet house, of “Some consequence yet hanging in the stars...”
Once inside Rosaline is forgotten. Romeo sees Juliet and falls in love with her before knowing who she is. At the exact same moment, Tybalt recognises Romeo. Love and hate intertwine. Lord Capulet stops his fiery nephew Tybalt from making a scene. Romeo discovers he has fallen for the daughter of Capulet, and Juliet makes the same discovery in reverse: “My only love sprung from my only hate!”
While Mercutio mocks his romantic nature, Romeo escapes his friends and enters the Capulet garden. There follows the famous Balcony Scene. Romeo overhears Juliet’s secret thoughts because she doesn’t know he’s there. Learning she loves him, he startles her by emerging from his hiding place. She knows he is in mortal danger. He doesn’t care – words have been spoken which cannot be withdrawn - but it’s the more practical Juliet (maturing before our eyes from the young girl in Act 1) who commits him to marriage. She movingly declares: “My love as deep; the more I give to thee,/ The more I have, for both are infinite.”
Romeo goes to ask Friar Lawrence to marry them. The Friar is a healer; despite his uncertainty about the haste of this business, he agrees, seeing a way in which the feud may be ended.
Mercutio and Benvolio wonder where Romeo is, knowing that Tybalt has sent a letter to the Montagues’ house. Mercutio knows how dangerous Tybalt can be – “the very butcher of a silk button.” They mock Romeo when he finally arrives. Romeo tells them nothing of his transformative meeting with Juliet. The Nurse arrives to fix a time for the marriage.
Juliet has been waiting desperately for news. The two meet again at Friar Lawrence’s cell and the marriage takes place.
Here we see why in the Prologue their love was described as “death-marked.”
In the heat of the noon, Tybalt comes looking for Romeo. He meets Benvolio with Mercutio who is in no mood to back down. “Here’s my fiddlestick,” he says, indicating his sword, “here’s that shall make you dance...I will not budge for no man’s pleasure, I.”
Tybalt is after Romeo, considering himself insulted at the party. Romeo arrives and faces a terrible dilemma. He has just secretly married Tybalt’s cousin, so he tries to resist Tybalt’s challenging. Mercutio sees this as cowardice; he and Tybalt fight, Romeo tries to intervene, and Mercutio is fatally wounded. He cries “A plague o’ both your houses” – knowing it is the feud that kills him. When Tybalt returns, Romeo, fearing that Juliet’s love has made him “effeminate” and enraged by the death of his friend, kills Tybalt.
Hearing both sides of the story, the Prince banishes Romeo from Verona.
Juliet is waiting for Romeo to join her for their wedding night, but the Nurse returns with news of Tybalt’s death. For a second, Juliet turns against her husband but her true feelings re-assert themselves: “O what a beast was I to chide at him!” The Nurse knows where Romeo is hiding and takes Juliet’s ring to him.
Romeo is with the Friar, full of self-pity, saying that banishment (away from Juliet) is as bad as death. He tries to stab himself but the Friar prevents him. The Friar reassures him that he can still spend the night with Juliet, but must be gone to nearby Mantua before dawn, until such time as the marriage can be made public.
Meanwhile Capulet, totally ignorant of his daughter’s relationship with his enemy’s son – who has just killed his nephew – decides to bring forward Juliet’s “marriage” to Paris. Lady Capulet brings this message to Juliet just after her daughter has spent the night with Romeo! At first Juliet defies her father; then she plays for time, particularly when even the Nurse tells her to marry Paris, despite knowing she’s already married Romeo!
In desperation she runs to the Friar, who hatches a bold but dangerous plan. He gives her a drug which will make her appear dead. He will meanwhile send a message telling Romeo the truth. Romeo will return and be there when she awakens. They can then escape together.
Juliet seems to make peace with her father, before taking the drug, despite her fears. On the morning when she is supposed to marry Paris she is found “dead”.
In Mantua, Romeo gets the news that Juliet is dead. We learn later that Friar Lawrence’s messenger was delayed by an outbreak of plague – so Romeo does not know the truth. He buys poison and sets out for the Capulet tomb, determined to kill himself: “I will lie with thee tonight.”
Arriving at the tomb he encounters Paris who is there to pay his respects to his “deceased” fiancé. They fight, and Romeo kills Paris, not knowing who he is until it’s too late- another pointless death. He enters the tomb and drinks the poison before Juliet awakens. The Friar arrives too late and finds the dead Paris. He tries to get Juliet to come with him but loses his nerve when he hears the approach of the Watch (the night watchmen in the city). When she sees the dead Romeo, she stabs herself.
Both sets of parents arrive (though Lady Montague has died, grieving over her son’s exile) and hear the Friar’s story. The Prince says to them: “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate...All are punished.”
The two families are reconciled. The Prince has the final lines of the play.
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
By using the word “her” the prince makes the first public acknowledgement in the play of their relationship, a secret from nearly everyone until these moments.