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Studying Romeo and Juliet

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Read the site introduction and information about the author.
How to write about Shakespeare's plays
Studying Shakespeare for GCSE
Studying Act 1, Scene 5
Subject and theme
Structure of the scene
Studying Act 3, Scene 1
Subject and theme
Verse and prose
Language for dramatic effect
Language for poetic effect
Patterns and details of language
Studying Act 3, Scene 5
Subject and theme
Structure of the scene
Comparing two plays
The course of true love
Friar Laurence and the Nurse
Almost fairy time
Verona and Athens
Tragedy and comedy
Fathers and daughters
Order and disorder
Pyramus and Thisbe
The plays in performance
GCSE criteria for assessment
The nature of the play


This guide was originally written to help pupils (and teachers) prepare for the May 2000 Key Stage 3 tests. As this play is no longer set for these tests, I have adapted the tutorial for use in teacher assessed work for Key Stage 3 and 4, including GCSE coursework.

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What do students have to do?

You have one hour and fifteen minutes to do one task (out of two) on one of the (three) plays set for the test. The plays for 2000 are Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and Macbeth. Do not do more than one task. Do not do tasks on more than one play. (Somebody somewhere probably will do this! Make sure it's not you.)

The question paper tells you clearly what to include in your answer, and what approach to take. Make sure you follow these instructions. If they tell you to write as if you are a particular character, then do so (use I and me - what we call the first personal pronouns). If you are not told this, then you should write in the third person, using names, or the pronouns he/she/him/her.

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How to write about Shakespeare's plays

Let the teacher/examiner marking your test paper see that you know that a play is drama. It happens in performance in a theatre (or, today, in a feature film or TV or radio broadcast). It is not a book and there are no readers. You may have used a book containing the characters' lines, some basic stage directions and lots of notes to help you study the play. But this is not what Shakespeare intended for his audience.

Show that you understand the difference between (fictional) characters in the play, and the (real) actors who play the parts. On the other hand, be careful when you write about things you have seen in performances of the play. If the director has changed something, be aware of this. For example, you may have seen feature films, such as those directed by Franco Zeffirelli (1968) or Baz Luhrmann (1996). In these many things are changed:

  • Franco Zeffirelli changes the way Friar Lawrence tries to send his message to Romeo in Mantua, and he alters the order of some scenes.
  • In Baz Luhrmann's film, swords become handguns manufactured by gunsmiths called "Sword", Romeo takes a mind-expanding drug before Capulet's ball and Mercutio is killed on a beach, with a sliver of glass
  • Both directors cut out Romeo's fight with Paris in Act 5 - so at the end of the play when the Prince says he has lost "a brace of kinsmen" [two male relatives] the audience can only think of one, Mercutio, whom they have seen killed. (This is only a selection - you will notice many more changes from the text you have studied.)

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It may be all right to mention these things so long as you show you know that they are the director's ideas, and not Shakespeare's. But avoid such errors as writing that Juliet shoots herself at the end of the play! And don't call the play a “film” or a “book”.

Finally, do not copy long passages from the Scenes from Shakespeare Plays booklet, which you are given for the test. Do quote short phrases or single words, putting these in speech marks. Do not write the verb quote to introduce a quotation. Always explain, or comment on, what you quote, using your own words.

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Extracts for the tests

For the Key Stage tests, the examiners work for the excitingly named Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE). They have set two extracts from each play. For May 2000, the Romeo and Juliet extracts are:

  • Act 1, Scene 5 - the complete scene
  • Act 3, Scene 5 - from line 64 ("Ho daughter, are you up") to the end of the scene.

Although you will focus on one specific episode of these two, you will need to write about things that come before and after it. For Act 1, Scene 5, this will mostly be about what comes after it.

The notes that follow should give you some ideas about what happens in the extracts, about how they show the themes of the play and its characters. There are also notes on how the play is written. These refer to the structure of the scene, to dramatic language, and to Shakespeare's stagecraft as it affects the plays in performance.

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Act 1, Scene 5

What is this scene about?

In this scene Romeo and Juliet meet. Note that in spite of its title, this play has very few scenes in which both lovers are present. The others are the balcony scene (2.2), the short wedding scene (2.6) and the opening of Act 3, Scene 5. The lovers are both on stage in Act 5, Scene 3 - but Romeo kills himself before Juliet wakes.

Shakespeare prepares for this scene by showing Romeo's infatuation with Rosaline (a very strong "crush" on her). On the guest list for the party, Rosaline is described as Capulet's "fair niece", but she never appears in the play. Benvolio (in 1.2) has promised to show Romeo a more attractive woman, but doesn't really have anyone special in mind, as far as we know. Similarly, we know that Juliet is there because Capulet wants to give Paris a chance to meet her - this is why he throws the party.

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Capulet's speech to Paris (in 1.2) suggests that Juliet has not been out of her house much (only, perhaps, to go to worship and confession at Friar Lawrence's cell). Maybe this is why Paris (a family friend) has noticed her, but Romeo has no idea who she is. Immediately before this scene, Romeo has spoken of his fear that some terrible "consequence [result] yet hanging in the stars" shall begin at "this night's revels" (Capulet's party). Does this fear come true? Tybalt's behaviour has also been prepared for by the brawl in the play's first scene.

In the scene, several things happen. Servants do their job, Capulet chats to a friend, Tybalt sees Romeo, wants to fight him and is told off by Capulet for his behaviour. Romeo and Juliet meet, and each finds out who the other is. But the most important things in the scene are:

  • the way Romeo falls in love with Juliet at first sight
  • and the way this contrasts with Tybalt's anger and hatred.

Romeo never knows that it is his presence at the party that causes Tybalt later to challenge him to a duel. These things lead to the events of Act 3, Scene 1, where Mercutio and Tybalt die.

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The structure of the scene

In the opening the servants speak informally (in prose, not verse), about all the work they have to do. This prepares for the grand entrance when the Capulets come on stage, in procession, wearing their expensive clothing and speaking verse. Romeo's comments about Juliet alternate with Tybalt's attempt to attack Romeo - who does not know that he's been noticed. At the end of the scene, the Nurse tells each lover who the other one is.

Within this general outline, Shakespeare shows the most important episode is that where Romeo and Juliet speak for the first time. This has the form of a sonnet (a rhyming fourteen line poem) - which many in the 16th Century audience would notice, as they heard the pattern of rhymes.

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There are many named characters in this scene, but you should concentrate on four of them mainly: Romeo, Juliet, Capulet and Tybalt. The Nurse gives bits of information, and Lady Capulet tells Tybalt off briefly. But the most important pair is Romeo and Juliet - look at their speech for evidence of their feelings. Romeo has told us he is attracted to Juliet. Her reaction shows that she is interested in him - she allows him to take her hand and to kiss her. Anything more in a public situation could make us think Juliet to be promiscuous.

The next most important pair is Tybalt and Capulet. Capulet may dislike the Montagues, but he is trying to obey the Prince's command. But as a host, he cannot allow even an enemy to be attacked under his own roof. And, he tells Tybalt, Romeo is "virtuous and well-governed" [well-behaved]. Tybalt is angry at losing the chance for a fight, and blames Romeo for this, especially when he is made to look silly by Capulet, who tells him off and calls him a "saucy boy".

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When Romeo sees Juliet he speaks about her, using metaphor: "She doth teach the torches to burn bright". This tells us that Juliet's beauty is much brighter than that of the torches - so she is very beautiful. She is so much brighter that she teaches the torches how to shine - a poetic exaggeration, since torches can't really be taught. It is important for Romeo to say this, as the audience cannot see Juliet's beauty directly - in Shakespeare's theatre a boy, perhaps seen at some distance, plays Juliet. But the metaphor also tells us that it is night, as Romeo can see the torches he compares her to. The audience must imagine this, as the play is performed by daylight, and no lighted torch would be safe in the theatre (the real Globe theatre was eventually destroyed by fire). At a private performance, at night in a rich person's house, there might be real torches on the walls, of course.

There are other interesting comparisons. In 1.2 Benvolio has said that he will show Romeo women who will make his "swan" (Rosaline) look like a "crow" (supposedly a common and ugly bird). Now Romeo, in a very similar comparison, says that Juliet (whose name he does not yet know) is like a "snowy dove" among "crows" (the other women). She stands out in a dark room as a bright jewel (which would catch the torchlight) in the ear of a dark-skinned person. The contrast of light and darkness in these comparisons suggests that Juliet is fair-skinned and perhaps fair-haired while most of the other women are dark. Although other people are on stage as Romeo says these things, he really speaks his thoughts or thinks aloud - so these speeches are soliloquies [solo speaking].

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When Romeo speaks to Juliet he compares her hand to a holy place ("shrine") which he may defile ("profane") with his hand. He compares his lips to pilgrims that can "smooth" away the "rough touch" of the hand with a kiss. "Gentle sin" is what we call an oxymoron - a contradiction. Why? Because "gentle" means noble or virtuous (in the 16th Century) while a "sin" is usually the opposite of noble. Juliet explains that handholding is the right kind of kiss for pilgrims, while lips are for praying. Romeo's witty response is to ask for permission to let his lips do what his hands are allowed to, and Juliet agrees to "grant" this for the sake of his prayers. When Romeo kisses her, Juliet says she has received the sin he has "purged" from himself. Romeo insists at once that he must take it back - and kisses her again!

Note how, throughout this scene (apart from the servants who use informal thou/thee/thy pronoun forms) the characters (even Romeo and Juliet) often address each other with the formal and respectful pronoun you. When Capulet is being pleasant to Tybalt he uses thou/thee/thy but when he becomes angry he switches to you. The same thing happens when he becomes angry with Juliet in Act 3, scene 5.

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When you write about this scene, think about how it would be staged in the 16th Century and today. At the start, the servants will have props to show that they are clearing up. These might include napkins, and trenchers (a kind of plate). The servants' simple clothes will show their status (social position) - today they might wear the formal clothes of waiters. These will probably be the same servants who quarrel with the Montague servants at the start of the play.

The wealthy noble guests will have expensive formal clothes. The young men are allowed to be "maskers". (They wear masks to hide who they are.) This lets them act in a familiar way to a lady, and flirt or attempt courtship. If they are successful, they will still need their parents' approval for a match leading to marriage. There are opportunities for dancing, and the scene should have music played for this. We know that young men do not wear swords at a ball in the house of a nobleman (as they do in the street) since Tybalt orders a page to fetch his rapier. (In the street, in Acts 1 and 3, he is wearing his sword, as are all of the young noblemen. For example, in 1.1, Benvolio draws a sword and urges Tybalt to do the same, to stop the servants fighting. )

When Romeo and Juliet meet, their speech shows the sequence of actions from handholding to kissing. We do not know exactly how this would be acted out in Shakespeare's theatre with boy actors in the female rôles - but perhaps there would be a very obvious and slow embrace, while the kiss would be easy to simulate. In modern film versions, with actresses shown in close-up, we expect rather more authentic action in this episode!

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Possible tasks for this scene

Be prepared to write about this scene generally, or in the rôle of one of the characters. This could be either of the young lovers. In 1999 there was a question (on another scene) mostly about Juliet, but not one on Romeo. And Romeo is not in Act 3, Scene 5, so it seems quite likely that the task set for this scene could focus on him.

An alternative question might take you away from individual characters to look (perhaps from a servant's viewpoint or the Nurse's) at the whole scene - at the contrast between what Romeo and Juliet do, and at the episodes involving Tybalt and the Capulets.

In preparing the scene, be ready to explain things from the viewpoint of any of the characters, but expect Romeo more than the others. And if you are asked to look at if from a neutral viewpoint, or that of a character of secondary or minor importance (Lady Capulet, Nurse, a servant) you should still write about the important events in it, and about Romeo and Juliet, Capulet and Tybalt.

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Act 3, Scene 5

What is this scene about?

This scene opens with Juliet saying goodbye to Romeo, who must leave for Mantua. In the previous scene the audience has heard Capulet offer Juliet's hand in marriage to Paris. We understand why he does this, but we know many things he does not know.

We can foresee that Juliet will not be happy about her father's decision. Once Romeo has gone, Lady Capulet tells Juliet she must marry. Juliet refuses, and her father angrily insists that she marry Paris or be turned out of the house. Alone with the Nurse, Juliet asks for advice. She replies that Juliet should marry Paris. Juliet is astounded and pretends to agree to this advice, while deciding that the only person who can help her is Friar Lawrence. Now she feels most alone in the world.

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Modern audiences may wonder what the problem is - why does Juliet not pretend to go through with the marriage? But Shakespeare's audience knows that it is a mortal sin to attempt marriage when you are already married. If you do this, you will certainly be damned (go to Hell). And there is no way that the Friar would conduct such a marriage ceremony, which is one of the sacraments (holy ceremonies or mysteries) of the church. The Nurse must know this, too, but it seems that she does not really believe in, or care about, heaven and hell.

The key to this scene is what various people know:

  • Capulet thinks he knows what has upset his daughter (Tybalt's death) but he is quite wrong.
  • Lady Capulet knows as little as her husband.
  • Juliet knows about her marriage to Romeo, but cannot explain to her parents.
  • Juliet doesn't know, until they tell her, about their plans for her to marry Paris.
  • The Nurse, at this point, knows about Juliet's secrets.

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Only the audience has the full picture. In the scene Juliet repeatedly speaks ambiguously - with one meaning for the person to whom she speaks, and another for herself and the audience. For example, the audience knows that Juliet knows that the Nurse knows that Juliet's parents don't know about her marriage to Romeo! (Think about it.) Later we know that the Nurse does not know that Juliet is deceiving her. Throughout the whole scene, Shakespeare makes dramatic use of what people do or don't know.

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The structure of the scene

The structure of the scene is a very simple sequence - the one common element being Juliet, who is present throughout. After the episode where she bids farewell to Romeo (not set for the Key Stage test), Juliet learns from her mother of the intended marriage to Paris. When Juliet defies her mother, Capulet argues with her. He even shouts at the Nurse, when she tries to defend Juliet. Finally, Juliet asks the Nurse for help. When the Nurse lets her down, Juliet is left alone on stage to explain (to the audience) what she is going to do.

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We find out quite a lot about all of the characters here. Juliet, only moments after being together with Romeo, is in a difficult situation. At first she tries simple defiance, like many a teenager. At the same time she uses irony - saying things that have a different real meaning from what appears on the surface. But she is also resourceful and ultimately very brave. Lady Capulet at first seems concerned for her daughter, but when Juliet defies her, she passes the problem on to her husband.

Capulet cares about Juliet, but he has given his word to Paris, and now he is angry and bullying. But it must seem to him that Juliet is being proud and ungrateful. Modern audiences should remember that arranged marriages are normal for people of Juliet's class, and that Paris, a wealthy relation of the Prince, is a very good prospective husband for her. She is beyond the usual age for marriage, and it is her father who in the past did not wish to marry her off. So now he feels he has spoiled her, and made her "proud".

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This scene makes the audience completely rethink our opinion of the Nurse. She has always seemed to care for Juliet and understand what matters to her. Now it becomes clear that the Nurse has never really understood her. We are made to think again about coarse remarks the Nurse makes in Act 1, scene 3, and Mercutios's even coarser insults in Act 2, Scene 4. In this scene he calls her a "bawd" and suggests that she is "an old hare hoar" ("a hairy old whore"), as well as speaking obscenely about the "bawdy hand of the dial" being on "the prick of noon". Perhaps Mercutio knows, or can see, what she is really like.

At the end of Act 3, scene 5 Juliet, now alone, says that from now on she will not trust the Nurse. She only speaks to her one more time in the play, very briefly in Act 4, Scene 3, and here too Juliet misleads her. It is shocking to think that the Nurse cares more about Juliet marrying, and perhaps having babies, than about her eternal soul or about her real love for Romeo, her husband.

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The most important feature of Juliet's speech in this scene is ambiguity or double meanings. When Lady Capulet says that Romeo (by killing Tybalt) has caused Juliet's grief, she agrees that Romeo has made her sad, and that she would like to get her hands on him. By placing one word - "dead" - between two sentences, Juliet makes her mother think she wants Romeo dead, while really saying that her heart is dead because of him.

When she swears "by Saint Peter's Church and Peter too", her mother thinks she is just using a strong oath - but the audience knows that Saint Peter decides who goes to heaven or hell: so she is swearing by the saint who would disallow a bigamous marriage. Later, Juliet speaks sarcastically to the Nurse, who thinks she is sincere, when she says that the Nurse has comforted her "marvellous much", with her suggestion of "marrying" Paris.

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Juliet's last speech in this scene, as she is alone on stage, is, of course, a soliloquy - it shows what she is thinking.

Both parents use interesting comparisons for Juliet's tears. Lady Capulet suggests that Juliet is trying to wash Tybalt from his grave, because she is crying so much - she tells her daughter that she is crying too much, and makes a play on the words much and some - "Some grief shows much of love", but "much grief shows some want [absence] of wit" [common sense or sense of proportion]. Lady Capulet means that Juliet is overdoing her show of grief. This kind of contrast, where similar words are rearranged in two halves of a sentence to show opposite meanings, is called antithesis.

Capulet also notices Juliet's tears but uses an extended metaphor. He compares the light rain [drizzle] of a real sunset with the heavy downpour of Juliet's tears for the metaphorical sunset [death] of his brother's son [Tybalt]. He develops this into the idea of a ship in a storm at sea - Juliet's eyes are the sea, her body is the bark [ship] and her sighs are the winds.

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Another feature of the language is Capulet's range of insults. He claims that Juliet is proud: she insists that she is not, and Capulet repeats the word as evidence of her "chopt-logic" or splitting hairs. These insults may seem mild or funny today, but were far more forceful in the 16th Century: "green-sickness carrion", "tallow-face", "baggage…wretch" and "hilding".

Capulet contrasts Paris's merits as a husband with Juliet's immature objections. He says that Paris is "Of fair demesnes, youthful and nobly ligned" and "stuffed…with honourable parts". He calls his daughter a "wretched puling fool" and a "whining mammet", before sarcastically mimicking her objections to the match: "I cannot love…I am too young". The audience knows of course that she can and does love (it is Rosaline who cannot), and that she is obviously not "too young" to marry. See if you can find out what these insults mean. Try to remember them, and act out the scene, making them as forceful as you can.

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Also, when Capulet becomes angry, he uses language inventively - so the adjective [describing word] proud becomes both verb and noun: "proud me no prouds". And finally, he reminds us of his power over Juliet by speaking of her as if she were a thoroughbred horse, which he can sell at will - "fettle your fine joints", he says, meaning that she must prepare herself for marriage.

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This scene takes place in Juliet's bedchamber. We may see a bed (or something to represent a bed), but no other furniture is needed. Juliet's costume may show that she has been in bed - though her parents do not suspect that she has had Romeo's company. Otherwise, the scene relies mostly on speech. There are not many clues about action or use of props.

Both her parents speak about Juliet's weeping, and at one point Juliet kneels to beg her father for pity. Capulet's outbursts against Juliet and the Nurse may be opportunities for some physical action as well as verbal aggression to show his anger. What might he do to show how angry he is?

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Possible tasks for this scene

In 1999 the task was to answer this question: "In this scene Juliet's parents insist she must marry Paris. What are the pressures Juliet is under and how does she react to them in this scene?"

  • It is likely that the task for 2000 will require you to look at the scene in some different way. One possibility is that you will have to write as if you are Juliet.
  • A second possibility is that you will have to relate this scene to what happens before and after it.
  • Perhaps the most likely possibility is to look at the scene as it affects another of the characters. While Lady Capulet and the Nurse could be chosen, the most likely character is Capulet. A question here could focus on what he does and does not know, as he argues with Juliet about her marrying Paris.
  • A final possibility might be a task which forces you to look equally at a range of characters in this scene: you could consider all of the people who try to influence Juliet in this scene - Lady Capulet, Capulet and the Nurse.

Whatever you do, be positive about it and enjoy the challenge. Good luck.

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