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Philip and Weller hugging

Welcome to my web site, now under development for more than twenty years.   
-- Philip Weller, November 13, 1941 - February 1, 2021
Dr. Weller, an Eastern Washington University professor of English and Shakespearean scholar for more than 50 years.

Themes and Motifs in Romeo and Juliet:


Technically, the Prologue is not foreshadowing. Foreshadowing hints at what will happen later, but in the Prologue the Chorus doesn't hint -- he tells. The second quatrain of the Chorus' sonnet sums up the plot of the play:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife (Prologue 5-8)
The next quatrain repeats the same message, and because this message is hammered home early, the later foreshadowings in the play are ominously recognizable. [Scene Summary]

Trying to talk Romeo out of his love-sickness for Rosaline, Benvolio advises him, "Take thou some new infection to thy eye, / And the rank poison of the old will die" (1.2.49-50). It turns out that Benvolio is right; as soon as Romeo sees Juliet all of his love for Rosaline disappears. [Scene Summary]

At the door of Capulet's house, when his friends are ready to go in, Romeo makes objections. He first says he's too melancholy. Mercutio tries to kid him out of it, but then Romeo says he shouldn't go in because he had a dream. Mercutio, in his famous "Queen Mab" speech, mockingly declares that dreams are illusory wish-fulfillment. Finally, Benvolio (who really wants to go to the party) remarks that this "wind" (that is, Mercutio's windiness) is getting to be a real problem. Supper is over, and if they don't go into Capulet's soon, they will be too late. To this, Romeo replies:

I fear, too early: for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels and expire the term
Of a despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But He, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen.   (1.4.104-113)
This is a foreshadowing of what actually happens in the rest of the play. A fateful chain of events ("consequence") does begin its appointed time ("date") that night, and that chain of events does terminate the duration ("expire the term") of Romeo's life with premature ("untimely") death. But, despite his premonitions, Romeo does go into Capulet's house. How seriously does he take himself? If he really believes what he says, why does he go in? Or is it that he has picked up Mercutio's mocking tone and is now mocking his own melancholy? [Scene Summary]

At Capulet's feast, to keep Tybalt from attacking Romeo, Capulet resorts to threats and insults. Tybalt's only choice is to shut up and leave, which he does, but not before making a promise to himself that Romeo will pay. He says, "I will withdraw, but this intrusion shall / Now seeming sweet convert to bitter gall" (1.5.91-92). "Gall" is anything that is extremely bitter, and the word also has a secondary meaning of "poison." As it turns out, the Romeo's sweet love for Juliet leads to his death by poison.

Later in the same scene, when Capulet's party is breaking up, Juliet sends the Nurse to find out Romeo's name. As the Nurse chases after Romeo, Juliet says, "If he be married. / My grave is like to be my wedding bed" (1.5.135) . She means that if Romeo is married, she will die unmarried, because she will never marry another, but she is also unkowningly foreshadowing her fate, in which her grave does become her wedding bed. [Scene Summary]

In the balcony scene, when Juliet expresses her fear for Romeo's safety, Romeo replies that it's ok if her kinsmen find him, because his "life were better ended by their hate, / Than death prorogued [postponed], wanting of [lacking] thy love" (2.2.77-78). In other words, he'd much rather have her love and die on the spot, than not have her love and die later. As it turns out, he does get her love, and dies for it, too. [Scene Summary]

Friar Laurence, picking herbs, muses on the the fact that there is some good in every plant and mineral, even the most dangerous. On the other hand, there's nothing so good, "but, strain'd [wrenched] from that fair use, / Revolts from true birth [natural goodness], stumbling on abuse" (2.3.19-20). Thus, "Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied; / And vice [is] sometimes by action dignified" (2.3.21-22). Everything depends on how natural powers are used; too much of a good thing is dangerous, and a bad thing can sometimes be used for good. These philosophical musing of the Friar foreshadow the character of many of the events to follow, the greatest example of which is that the love of Romeo and Juliet brings them death, and their death ends the hatred between the Capulets and Montagues. [Scene Summary]

Friar Laurence and Romeo are waiting for Juliet, so the wedding can be performed. Friar Laurence, thinking ahead, says "So smile the heavens upon this holy act, / That after hours with sorrow chide us not!" (2.6.1-2). Earlier, when Romeo asked the Friar to marry himself and Juliet, the Friar agreed because of what might happen in what he now calls the "after hours." He is hoping that the marriage of Romeo and Juliet will put an end to feud between the houses of Montague and Capulet, but things could go wrong and, if they do, the sorrows of those "after hours" will chide them for what they are about to do. Or at least that's what the Friar thinks. Romeo, on the other hand, lives only in the present, and says so: "Amen, amen! but come what sorrow can, / It cannot countervail [equal] the exchange of joy / That one short minute gives me in her sight" (2.6.3-5). In his view, the joy of a minute with Juliet will be greater than all the possible sorrow of any later hours. Romeo adds that he is ready to face the greatest sorrow of all: "Do thou but close our hands with holy words, / Then love-devouring death do what he dare; / It is enough I may but call her mine" (2.6.6-8). These exulting words foreshadow what actually happens; "love-devouring death" makes its first appearance shortly after the wedding. [Scene Summary]

When Benvolio brings the news that Mercutio is dead, Romeo says, "This day's black fate on more days doth depend; / This but begins the woe, others must end" (3.1.119-120). "On . . . depend" means "hang or hover over"; it's as if Romeo is envisioning the death of Mercutio as a dark thunderhead, racing across the sky above him and into the unknown future. Romeo knows he has reached a point of no return; he will fight Tybalt to avenge Mercutio, but he knows that won't be the end of anything. Then, after he has fought and killed Tybalt, cries out, "O, I am fortune's fool!" (3.1.136). Here "fool" means "plaything" or "dupe." Romeo knows he is no longer in control of his fate. [Scene Summary]

Upon learning that Romeo has been banished, Juliet thinks that his absence will kill her. She says, "I'll to my wedding-bed; / And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!" (3.2.136-137). [Later in the play, this idea is echoed when Capulet says to Paris, over (what he believes is) Juliet's dead body, "O son! the night before thy wedding-day / Hath Death lain with thy wife. There she lies, / Flower as she was, deflowered by him" (4.5.35-37)] [Scene Summary]

After Romeo and Juliet's one night of married happiness, Romeo must leave for Mantua. Romeo leaps down from Juliet's window and then they exchange their final farewells. Romeo promises he will write to her every chance he gets, but Juliet is suddenly filled with foreboding. She asks, "O think'st thou we shall ever meet again?" (3.5.51). Romeo reassuringly answers, "I doubt it not; and all these woes shall serve / For sweet discourses in our time to come" (3.5.52-53). He means that he's sure they will get together again, and when they do, it will be sweet to talk about how they suffered for one another. But Juliet, looking down at him, says "Methinks I see thee, now thou art below, / As one dead in the bottom of a tomb. / Either my eyesight fails, or thou look'st pale" (3.5.55-57). Again Romeo tries to reassure her, but as a matter of fact the next time she sees him he will be dead in a tomb.

Later in the same scene Juliet pleads with her mother to help her avoid the marriage to Paris: "O, sweet my mother, cast me not away! / Delay this marriage for a month, a week / Or, if you do not, make the bridal bed / In that dim monument where Tybalt lies" (3.5.198-201). Juliet is saying she'd rather die than marry Paris, but by the end of the play she is sleeping with her husband "in that dim monument where Tybalt lies." [Scene Summary]

Before Friar Laurence tells Juliet of his plan to have her take a sleeping potion, he asks if she has courage to undergo something like death. He says, "if thou darest, I'll give thee remedy" (4.1.76). Juliet answers that she will do anything rather than marry Paris -- jump from a tower, hide with serpents, be chained with roaring bears. Or, she says, the Friar could,

      hide me nightly in a charnel-house,
O'er-cover'd quite with dead men's rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls;
Or bid me go into a new-made grave
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud;
Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble;
And I will do it without fear or doubt,
To live an unstain'd wife to my sweet love;   (4.1.81-88)
This describes what does happen to Juliet; she does hide in a charnel house, and the "dead man in his shroud" turns out to be Tybalt. [Scene Summary]

When Lady Capulet and the Nurse leave Juliet alone on the night before the morning that Juliet is supposed to marry Paris, Juliet says--though not so they can hear--"Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again" (4.3.14). This is heartbreaking. Because of the abundant foreshadowing in the play, we sense that Juliet will never again see her mother or the Nurse, who has been like a mother to her. Juliet herself feels the dread of death. She says, "I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins, / That almost freezes up the heat of life" (4.3.15-16). "Thrill" means "pierce" and also "shiver"; Juliet feels as though she's freezing from the inside. She has an implulse to call back her mother and the Nurse, and she actually does call for the Nurse, but then reminds herself that "My dismal scene I needs must act alone" (4.3.19).

Without her mother, without her Nurse, Juliet has only her vial and her knife. Looking at the vial, she asks herself what will happen if it does not work. Will she then be married to Paris in the morning? Answering her own question and looking at the knife, she says, "No, no, this shall forbid it" (4.3.23). The thought that she can kill herself is a kind of comfort to her, and she puts the knife down, saying "Lie thou there," as though she needs to remember just where she put it in case she needs it. At the end of the scene she drinks the Friar's potion and falls down as if dead. Thus, this scene is a preview of what happens at the end of the play when she tries to drink Romeo's poison, stabs herself with Romeo's knife, and falls down, dead indeed. [Scene Summary]

"Hold, take these keys, and fetch more spices, nurse" (4.4.1), says Lady Capulet. So begins the scene in which the Nurse, Lady Capulet, and Capulet bustle about preparing the feast for the wedding of Juliet and Paris. Imaginatively, we are now in the same room where Capulet hosted the feast at which Romeo and Juliet met, but on stage this scene is often played in front of the curtained bed on which Juliet lies. Thus we cannot forget what those on stage do not know--that the wedding they are preparing for will turn into a funeral. [Scene Summary]

Capulet, speaking to Paris, delivers the news of Juliet's (apparent) death to the would-be groom by speaking of her as the bride of Death. He says, "O son! the night before thy wedding-day / Hath Death lain with thy wife. There she lies, / Flower as she was, deflowered by him" (4.5.35-37). To "lie" with a woman is to make love to her, and to make love to a virgin is to "deflower" her. Capulet's metaphor may seem somewhat creepy to us (and not particularly appropriate to his character), but it does foreshadow the fate of Juliet, who dies in a loving embrace with her dead husband. [Scene Summary]