To draw attention to Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting, Shakespeare uses the sonnet – a complex and highly artificial verse form, popular in the 16th century and generally regarded as the proper medium for love poetry. Romeo starts with devout religious utterance:
If I profane with my unworthiest hand,
This holy shrine…
He develops the religious image for four lines, which rhyme alternately (ABAB), then Juliet picks up the same image, speaking the next four lines in the same pattern (with rhyme CBCB). A third quatrain is shared between the two (rhyme DEDE) and a final couplet is spoken – the first line by Juliet, the second by Romeo, who clearly takes advantage to kiss Juliet at the end of this line.
Then move not while my prayers effect I take
The sonnet form is used to emphasise the lovers’ isolation from the society in which they live; and the way in which they share the same extended image and same verse form emphasises the harmony of their thoughts. Even so, one should notice that Juliet manages to tease Romeo a little within the solemn expression of devotion. The effect of the religious imagery is to show the strength and intensity of the relationship that is developing, as religious devotion is considered the highest devotion. The references to pilgrimage are also appropriate because in Italian the name Romeo means ‘pilgrim to Rome’. After the kiss, it appears that the lovers are about to start a second sonnet, but they are interrupted. This interruption could be seen as prophetic of the separation and ill-fortune to come.
Dramatic irony creates tension as Romeo woos Juliet, unaware that Tybalt has just pledged to end his life for intruding on the Capulet celebrations. The love between Romeo and Juliet contrasts with the hate of Tybalt and the hate between the Capulets and Montagues, and this love amidst hate is one of the main themes of the play. Romeo himself says:
Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love
The audience is challenged to make sense of this paradox.
Prophetic irony is abundant in Romeo and Juliet: before they go to the Capulet ball, Benvolio tells Romeo to:
Compare her face with some that I shall show
And I will make thee think thy swan a crow.
Romeo does, and the result is that Rosaline is forgotten and he falls in love with Juliet. However, the main purpose of prophetic irony in the play is to create tension: in Romeo and Juliet it is quite clear that the lovers have to die, that they are doomed. Shakespeare here has a simple conception of tragedy: that the lovers are the victims of circumstances. They are not responsible for their destinies: a terrible succession of twists of fate destroys them. Had any one of so many things been different, all would have been well: had Friar Laurence’s letter been delivered, had Juliet woken earlier, etc. These coincidences are hardly realistic, but they do serve an important dramatic purpose: because things keep going against the lovers we begin to feel that a hostile fate is working against them. Shakespeare deliberately encourages this view throughout the play. At the very beginning the chorus tells us that we are to see a pair of star-cross’d lovers and from then on there are repeated ominous suggestions that Romeo and Juliet are fated to die. Even before Romeo has seen Juliet, as he is about to join Capulet’s party, he says:
…my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars…
…some vile forfeit of untimely death.
He is, of course, right, and the audience, hearing these lines, fears as much. The moment after they have met, each lover has a similar foreboding that this love will end in disaster. When Benvolio says Away, be gone. The sport is at its best, Romeo replies Ay, so I fear, meaning he fears things can only get worse from now on. When he discovers that Juliet is a Capulet, Romeo says:
Is she a Capulet?
O dear account! My life is my foe’s debt.
Juliet, on learning Romeo’s identity from the Nurse, says:
Prodigious birth of love it is to me
That I must love a loathed enemy
References like these throughout the play gradually increase the air of foreboding and strengthen the impression, which the sad succession of hostile chances has given, that there is nothing Romeo and Juliet can do. One recurring kind of remark works particularly strongly to darken the atmosphere of the play. She herself first speaks like this the moment after she has met Romeo:
Go ask his name – If he be married
My grave is like to be my wedding bed.
Time and again, Shakespeare introduces the idea that Juliet will be the bride of Death.
We see in the play romantic and unromantic ideas of love in conflict. Romeo and Juliet are romantic. They give their all and disregard everything else. For Capulet, however, love and marriage are matters to be decided by a prudent father with the best interests of his daughter at heart. For Lady Capulet, Juliet’s mother, it seems to be a matter of worldly wisdom. She is a rather curt, sharp woman. She is not yet thirty years old (in Act 1 Scene 3 she says she was a mother at about Juliet’s age and as Juliet is now nearly 14 this would make Lady Capulet about 28), yet her husband is an old man, well past the age for dancing. To him, Lady Capulet speaks abruptly, often reminding him of his age. She seems to have little love for him in the romantic sense and the difference in their ages leads us to suppose she married him not for love but for convenience. It was the sensible thing to do to get a good position in the world. Like Capulet himself, she has no patience with Juliet’s refusal of her father’s prudent scheme. It is because of their views on love that neither parent can understand why Juliet should possibly want to decline such a handsome offer of marriage as Paris’s.
Throughout the play the love of Romeo and Juliet is set in context of lewd talk that pokes fun at love. The Nurse is forever making sexual puns and innuendos. She repeats with relish her husband’s joke when the baby Juliet falls down:
‘A was a merry man – took up the child.
‘Yea,’ quoth my husband, ‘fall’st upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou com’st to age;
Wilt thou not, Jule?’ It stinted, and said ‘Ay’.
The point of the joke is, of course, that Juliet will lie on her back when a man makes love to her. Thus, the Nurse’s view of love creates comedy.
When we first meet him, Romeo is a rather tiresome young man, endlessly complaining in the elaborate language of love then fashionable about his sorrows because Rosaline rejects him. He is playing the part of the Petrarchan lover. The love poetry of the medieval Italian poet Francesco Petrarch was widely imitated throughout the Renaissance. It established literary conventions of how to behave and how to talk when in love. In Elizabethan love poetry we meet, over and over again, lovers who behave just like Romeo. They dote upon one lady; live only for her; express their feelings in elaborate extended images and rhetorical phrases; they are devastated if she frowns on them and overwhelmed by joy if she smiles. It is an elaborate, exaggerated ideal, almost a religion of love. Mercutio recognizes the fashionable posturing of Romeo’s behaviour when he says:
Now he is for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in
Romeo regards Rosaline as beyond all women in beauty:
The all-seeing sun
Ne’er saw her match since first the world begun
He swears his love for her in religious terms – he worships her, and resorts to ingenious imagery to say so. He talks of his depression at her rejection of him in the same exaggerated way. It is difficult for the audience not to feel that he is wallowing in self-pity, and the oxymorons with which he endeavours to describe his feelings sound very much like contrivance:
Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O anything, of nothing first create!
One may well feel that Romeo is in love with the idea of being in love, and we have a good deal of sympathy with Benvolio’s attempts to make him see sense and Mercutio’s efforts to mock him from his moaning. On stage the prospect of neither of Romeo’s two friends taking his “love” too seriously would strengthen the audience’s suspicions. He is a young man playing love games.
When Romeo sees Juliet, all this changes. All his extravagant avowals vanish in a moment. The speech in which Romeo first sees Juliet has a new simplicity and tenderness, a new wonder:
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear:
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows…
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night
The last line is a confession that all he said before was silly and wrong. Ironically, Benvolio had told Romeo that if he went to Capulet’s party and saw Rosaline in the company of other ladies, he would realise that she was not at all exceptional. Rosaline is indeed displaced, but by a sincerer and truer affection than Benvolio ever expected. The Friar is later amazed at Romeo’s fickleness, but this is not the simple fickleness of a man changing one love for another. It is a change from a shallow affection to a true love. Although Romeo is always prone to lapse again into extravagant language, the audience never doubts the new depth of his feelings. He is, after all, constant to Juliet to death. Shakespeare stresses this change by making Rosaline only a name: we cannot take too seriously protestations of love for a woman we never see or hear.
The other noticeable change in Romeo is best illustrated by Mercutio’s remarks:
Why, is this not better now than groaning for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature: for this drivelling love is like a great natural, that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.
Romeo had been downhearted and melancholy whilst pining over Rosaline, but once he meets and falls in love with Juliet, his friends notice that a marked change in him, in that he is witty and sociable, and himself again.
Juliet also undergoes a change, but she is never presumptuous and silly like Romeo in the earlier part of the play. She is modest, subdued, and quite without knowledge of the nature and power of love when we first meet her. When her mother suggests that Paris might make a good husband, Juliet simply replies:
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
For Juliet, the meeting with Romeo is an awakening to what love is, and with this she discovers a new resolution: she flatly contradicts her promise of obedience by marrying Romeo secretly. She emerges as a strong and practical personality – far more so than Romeo. In the balcony scene, she addresses Romeo directly and plainly, asking down-to-earth questions to which Romeo replies with elaborate images. When she discovers that Romeo has overheard her confessing her love for him, she does not deny it, but with startling and winning directness dismisses all the forms of courtship:
But farewell compliment!
Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay’.
And I will take thy word.
Shakespeare admired this kind of honesty: it is Juliet, one notices, who first mentions marriage and sets Romeo on to arrange it.
Thus, both hero and heroine undergo a clear change. It is to make this plain that Shakespeare does not bring them together until the end of the first act. By then, we have got to know their characters and situation and can better appreciate the transformation that occurs. Seeing it, the audience cannot but admire their love, believe in its power and sympathise with the lovers’ predicament.
The beauty of the scenes in which the lovers meet is in itself proof enough that Shakespeare wants the audience to respond wholly and totally to this love. Did he not want this, he would not have made it sound so attractive, nor would he have made Romeo and Juliet such appealing people. However there is a further significant element in the play which affects the audience’s response. The parents that Romeo and Juliet defy are engaged in a feud. The love of the hero and heroine is set in a context of hate. This is an extremely important point to grasp. The play’s first scene is concerned with this feud; we are made aware of it before ever we meet Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, it is the very first thing the Chorus mentions in the Prologue:
Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean
Throughout the play the audience is constantly reminded of this feud. Although it is not revealed what began it (and so the audience cannot take sides) it is of very long standing (an ancient grudge). There is a reason that Shakespeare spends so much time on this feud: although everyone else in the play may be full of good sense, they are all also engaged in a feud which is the opposite of love. The audience cannot prefer their way of life to that of Romeo and Juliet, who want nothing to do with the feud. In short, the world of Romeo and Juliet’s love seems a haven of peace and love removed from all this brawling and hate.
There are many factors that contribute to the dramatic climax at Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting. By the end of Act 1, Shakespeare has fully engaged the audience in the love story of which the first meeting is the beginning, yet it feels like a climax given its context and nature. The prologue tells the audience at the very beginning of the play that this is to be a great and tragic love story, and thus the lovers’ first meeting at the end of Act 1 is long-awaited and -expected by the audience, creating dramatic tension. The first meeting is short but intense – private yet in a public place – and tragedy immediately threatens. The young lovers are presented sympathetically, encouraging the audience to believe in the prospects of the relationship, even against their better judgement, and to rejoice at their happiness. The meeting also creates anticipation for the rest of the play, as the audience wonders what will become of Tybalt, the feud, and most importantly of Romeo and Juliet.