Romeo and Juliet at a glance: Your brief guide to the most famous of all romantic tragedies

From the plot and themes to the most famous lines – everything you need to know about William Shakespeare's iconic play

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Plot: Romeo is a Montague. Juliet is a Capulet. He loves her, she him. The hitch? Their families are mortal enemies. When Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, slays Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio, the lovestruck Romeo kills him and is banished. Juliet kills herself (but not really) and Romeo, believing his love is dead, kills himself (really). After the young Capulet wakes from her death-like slumber and sees her deceased lover, she stabs herself (really), ending their parents’ age-old feud, and her life. 

Themes: Star-crossed lovers; death-marked love; life’s cruel ironies; the inescapable tragedy of fate (the key twists of the plot are revealed during the prologue). 

Background: Written in the mid-1590s, with the male lead probably played (as usual) by Richard Burbage. Notable productions since include John Gielgud’s, starring Laurence Olivier, in 1935; and Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’ film version, set in gang-run Verona Beach. 

Key characters

  • Romeo: young, impulsive, handsome, doomed.
  • Juliet: young, passionate, beautiful;  also doomed.
  • Mercutio: teasing friend whose death sets the plot in motion.
  • Friar Lawrence: would be peacekeeper whose blunders help it on its improbable way.

Top lines

  • ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ Juliet on the balcony, Act 2, Scene 2.
  • ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.’ Juliet weighs love against family ties, Act 2, Scene 2.
  • ‘A plague o’ both your houses! They have made worms’ meat of me!’ Mercutio, dying, curses the feud that killed him, Act 3, Scene 1. 
  • ‘Give me my Romeo and, when he shall die, take him and cut him out into stars, and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night...’ Juliet pines for Romeo, Act 3 Scene 2
  • ‘Thus with a kiss I die.’ Romeo’s last words. Act 5, Scene 3
  • ‘‘O happy dagger! Here is thy sheath, there rust.’ Juliet prepares to plunge Romeo’s knife into her bosom. Act 5, Scene 3

Echoes: Where to begin? Dire Straits (‘Romeo and Juliet’), Leonard Bernstein (‘West Side Story’); Franco Zeferelli (whose 1968 blockbuster remains the definitive screen version) Taylor Swift (‘Love Story’); and so on...