Scene 1: (Sunday) Uproar in the streets of Verona between servants and members of the Montague and Capulet families. The Prince warns them all: peace or die. The Montagues and Benvolio discuss Romeo's odd behaviour. Romeo appears, lost in Petrarchan love metaphors.
Scene 2: Old Capulet and young Count Paris discuss Capulet's (still unnamed) daughter; Capulet says she is still too young for marriage. A party is planned so they can see one another.
Scene 3: Juliet with Mother and Nurse; discussion of her age, with humour from the Nurse. Mention of marriage with Paris.
Scene 4: Romeo joking with friends; Mercutio's flashy Queen Mab speech delays Romeo's mention of an ill-omened dream.
Scene 5: Party. Romeo sees Juliet; Tybalt starts to make trouble but is driven out by Capulet; the sonnet-encounter, Romeo and Juliet kiss; each discovers too late the identity of the other.
Scene 1: Romeo withdraws from still-joking friends.
Scene 2: The "Balcony Scene" with declaration of love, Juliet mentions marriage; next day rendez-vous. Farewells.
Scene 3: (Monday) Early morning. Romeo tells the Friar of the matter.
Scene 4: As his friends are joking with Romeo, the Nurse brings a message from Juliet, plans are made.
Scene 5: Juliet's impatience in monologue, then Nurse's teasing.
Scene 6: Romeo and Juliet come the the Friar's cell to be married.
Scene 1: Benvolio and Mercutio talking, Tybalt enters, then Romeo; Tybalt (Juliet's cousin) kills Mercutio while Romeo is trying to make peace. Romeo kills Tybalt and runs off. Prince sentences him to exile (or death).
Scene 2: Juliet's impatience for wedding night. Nurse comes weeping, Juliet believes Romeo is dead, until Nurse tells her what has happened. Juliet's mixed emotions.
Scene 3: Romeo runs to the Friar in despair. Nurse tells of Juliet's reactions; intense emotions. They go on preparing the wedding-night.
Scene 4: Old Capulet tells Paris that he shall marry Juliet on Thursday, because she is so sad for Tybalt.
Scene 5: (Tuesday) The morning after the wedding-night, the lovers part. Juliet and Mother talk. Mother tells of planned marriage with Paris, Juliet refuses, Capulet is furious, Nurse not helpful. Juliet decides to ask the Friar for help.
Scene 1: Friar's plan, the potion that will simulate death.
Scene 2: Juliet accepts her Father's will, he is so pleased, he advances the wedding to "tomorrow" (Wednesday).
Scene 3: The evening; Juliet drinks the potion, falls as if dead.
Scene 4: (Wednesday) Juliet discovered apparently dead. All lament. She is to be buried at once in the family vault. Comic interlude.
Scene 1: Romeo exiled in Mantua hears from his servant that Juliet is dead. Buys poison.
Scene 2: Friar learns that his message has not got to Romeo, the friar who was carrying it having been prevented from leaving.
Scene 3: The Crypt. Romeo arrives, encounters Paris, whom he fights and kills; he addresses the dead Juliet, drinks poison, and dies; the Friar arrives but Juliet wakes, sees Romeo dead and kills herself. Final Assembly learns what has happened. There is reconciliation of the warring families, but Romeo's mother has died, neither family has other children, all they can do is build a monument to "Juliet and her Romeo."
Several comedies written by Shakespeare in the mid-1590s (The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado about Nothing, All's Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure), like this play, are based on novelle (Italian short stories in the style of those in Boccaccio's Decameron). All are concerned with threatened or fragile relationships between young people, and the problem of reconciling romantic love with social obligations.
The story of Romeo and Juliet developed in Italy out of various tales involving potions that give the appearance of death. The first version seems to be that published in 1476 by Salernitano, which inspired Luigi da Porto to publish in 1530 what he insists is a true story, set in Verona, involving Romeo and Giulietta from the feuding families of Montecchi and Capellati. The story Shakespeare dramatizes is essentially da Porto's. It seems sure that da Porto was influenced by Ovid's tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. The Italian Bandello adapted the story in his own novelle of 1554, adding a comic nurse and a Count Paris, and other details; this version was translated into French in 1559 in a version with much expression of strong emotion. Arthur Brooke translated the French tale into English, publishing it in 1562.
Brooke was reading Chaucer's Troilus as he worked, and introduced the theme of 'fierce Fortune' as his own contribution, as well as turning to Chaucer for the rhetorical style of heightened emotion. Shakespeare dramatizes Brooke's poem, and he too turns to Chaucer's Troilus for extra tragic dimensions, as well as to Marlowe's Hero and Leander and Dido for poetic intensity:
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.(Act I.v)
The love affair in Brooke covers nine months, the lovers meeting many times; in Shakespeare's play the play begins at dawn on a mid- summer Sunday, the lovers meet that evening and the balcony scene ends as Monday's dawn is breaking; they marry that midday and Romeo kills Tybalt on Monday afternoon. Their wedding night ends with Romeo's departure for Mantua at dawn on Tuesday. During the day Juliet is told that her marriage will take place the next day and she receives the potion from the Friar which she drinks that evening. On the dawn of Wednesday she is found 'dead' and the Friar has her body taken to the vault. Romeo is told of her death, arrives at the tomb in the evening and kills himself a few moments before Juliet recovers. Dawn is breaking as the play ends. In this way (as in Othello) Shakespeare makes Time the powerful instrument of Fate in a drama which links Love and Death in a remarkably powerful way.
The impatience of the lovers owes much to that of Astrophel in Sidney's sonnet sequence, and it is no coincidence that their encounter culminates in a sonnet:
Romeo. If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Romeo. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo. O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do:
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Juliet. Saints do not move, though grant for prayer's sake.
Romeo. Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take. (They kiss) (Act I.v)
In dramatizing this story in which two children (Juliet is scarcely in her teens) defy parents, society, and death itself in the name of love, Shakespeare used techniques he had learned from Kyd's Spanish Tragedy. The audience is kept aware of the entire situation, while each group of characters on stage is unaware of an important part of what is happening. Irony and suspense combine to give maximum impact to the last words of Romeo in the vault, in a long soliloquy beginning:
A grave? O no, a lantern, slaughter'd youth.
For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes
This vault a feasting presence, full of light. (Act V.iii)