English 304: Shakespeare: Major Plays (Prof. Boyer)
Reading Questions for Romeo and Juliet
Keyed to The Norton Shakespeare
The best beginning procedure is always to familiarize yourself with the cast of characters and then to read the play (or at least an act or a scene) all the way through so that you know what's happening. The notes can help if you're stuck, but try to get the big picture of a scene before getting bogged down in details. Read through, then go back and clear up details. Then you're ready to think about the questions.

Background: the Vendetta
Prologue and Act 1
Act 2
Act 3
Act 4
Act 5
Return to list of English 304 reading questions 

BACKBROUND: THE VENDETTA

[This is the description of a series of seminars given in 1986 at the Newberry Library by Edward Muir of Northwestern University, later published as Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli During the Renaissance, 1993.] Vendetta in Renaissance Italy constituted a rich body of cultural lore, and the pursuit of revenge often defined a family's kinship and clientage obligations. On the level of culture or collective meaning, vendetta shared with carnival festivity and carnivalesque literature a preoccupation with the human body, both literally and figuratively, and with animals, their characteristics and behavior, and their relationships with human beings. Avengers gloried in the dishonor of enemies' bodies and explained themselves by comparing men to animals, especially to pigs and dogs. On the sociological level vendetta was highly elastic, easily distorted to fit circumstances, often greatly contracted or expanded by political events and conditions. Vendetta could be the exclusive mania of a few individuals who failed even to infect their own kin, the excessive fascination of an entire clan, or the means by which whole clientage networks of artisans and peasants were mobilized for violent factional confrontations. By examining one long and particularly bloody vendetta that dominated life in Friuli during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a vendetta that probably provided the historical prototype for Alvise da Porto's Giulietta e Romeo, and by comparing that vendetta with others in Italy, a picture can be drawn that illustrates the vast cultural range of vendetta-related concepts of honor and shame, the pliant consistency of vendetta-based groups and coalitions, and the value of vendetta as a system of justice. [The titles of the four lectures are "A Carnival Slogan: 'Say it with Meat,'" "Vendetta and Clientage: The Cruel Carnival in Friuli (1511)," "Dogs at the Kill: The Assassination of Antonio Savorgnan (1512)," and "From Feuding to Dueling: Considerations on Manners and the Control of Violence."]

top

PROLOGUE AND ACT 1

Pro.

1.

What does it mean that the lovers are "star-crossed" (Pro.6)? What is the effect of having the author (speaking through Chorus) give away the ending?

2.

If the lovers are "star-crossed" (i.e., governed by fate/the stars), can they be tragic figures? If they are tragic figures, what do they themselves contribute to their downfall? This is something to watch throughout the play.

1.1

1.

How do Samson and Gregory re-ignite the feud (1.1.1-73)? What do we learn about the town and what is happening there? How would Samson and Gregory react to the idea of true love?

2.

How do Old Capulet and Old Montague respond to the fighting (1.1.68-73)? How do their wives respond?

3.

What is the Prince's response to the fighting (1.1.74-96)? Which side is he on? What does he threaten?

4.

Who is Romeo? Where has he been through all this, how has he been behaving, and what is bothering him when he appears (1.1.109-231)?

5.

Does Benvolio learn whom Romeo loves? How truly serious is Romeo's love? What complication makes the woman he has chosen a less than perfect love object (1.1.201-217)?

1.2

1.

How old is Juliet (1.2.9)? What is Capulet's attitude toward Juliet's marriage (1.2.7-17 and the two additional lines in 2)? Who wants to marry her? (Note that "County" is a version of "Count." What we have here is a member of the old Italian nobility seeking the hand of a rich city man's daughter, a city man who is rich because of commerce, not land.)

2.

What will happen that night? Why is it important that we know this?

3.

How is Capulet going to deliver his invitations (1.2.32-35)? How much success is he likely to have (1.2.36-42)?

4.

What happens when the servant meets Benvolio and Romeo (1.2.43ff)? Why is this meeting important for the play? Why would Romeo be especially interested in attending? What has Benvolio learned since we saw him at the end of 1.1? (See 1.2.82-83.) Why does Benvolio want Romeo to go to the feast? What does he think will happen?

1.3

1.

What sort of world does the Nurse live in? How, ultimately, would that world respond to true love? How do you think Juliet feels during the Nurse's long story about her?

2.

Why has Lady Capulet actually come to talk to Juliet (1.3.65-67)? How old is Lady Capulet (1.3.74-75)? Is she Capulet's first wife? (See the two lines in note 2 to 1.2.13). Does this suggest older and now dead children? Or merely other children he had with Lady Capulet? One answer appears at 3.5.164-165.)

3.

How does Juliet behave to her mother? (See especially 1.3.99-101.)

1.4

1.

How are Romeo and the others planning to get into the Capulet feast? How eager is Romeo to participate?

2.

How does Mercutio answer Romeo's fears based on his dream (1.4.53-103)? Note the role of dreams and visions throughout the play. What does the Queen Mab speech add to the play? What does it add to the character of Mercutio?

3.

Is Romeo any happier? (See 1.4.106-113.) What images does he think of? What ending does he foresee for himself?

1.5

1.

What does Old Capulet learn about himself in his opening lines (1.5.14-38)?

2.

Meanwhile, what has happened to Romeo (1.5.39-50)? How does Tybalt respond, and how does Capulet respond to Tybalt (1.5.51-89)? How do things look for the future between Tybalt and Romeo?

3.

Note the formality of the first meeting between Romeo and Juliet (1.5.90-107), including the sonnet beginning at l. 90. What is the effect of making their first meeting this formal and poetic?

4.

How does Romeo find out that Juliet is a Capulet (and not merely a guest from a family friendly to the Capulets)? (See 1.5.108-115.)

5.

How does Juliet find out who Romeo is (1.5.125-138)? What is her reaction? What does she already think of as a possible fate (1.5.131-132)? Notice l. 129: why didn't Romeo dance? Is Juliet's lie to the Nurse at 1.5.139-140 typical of her or is it something new?

top

ACT 2

2.0

1.

What do we learn from the Act 2 Chorus?

2.1

1.

Why does Mercutio "conjure" Romeo (2.1.3-21)? How sympathetic does Mercutio sound to the idea of true love?

2.

Note that many editions begin 2.2. at 2.1.43.

3.

Where has Romeo ended up? Did he intend to be there? What does he see? What doesn't he know yet (2.1.52-53)? What does he learn at 2.1.75? What is Juliet asking in that line?

4.

What really happens in the balcony scene (2.1.43ff)? Who's in charge here? Why is Juliet so open with Romeo? How hard does Romeo have to woo? (Consider 2.1.184-190). In what way(s) is Juliet's freely giving of herself to Romeo a violation of the patriarchal famliy rules that govern the society of Verona? (But note that she doesn't violate all the standardsRomeo and Juliet are of the same social class; no Lady Chatterly falling for Mellors here!) Is Juliet doing the "right thing" (and from what perspective?), or is she letting her teen-age sexuality run away with her?

5.

Does Romeo ever go up to Juliet? Does he in the movie versions? (In the text he doesn't-to get to her bedroom after the wedding he will need a rope ladder, so the balcony must be too high for him to climb. Follow the rope ladder through the play: 2.3.168-172, 2.4.71-73, 3.2.32-35, 3.2.132-137.)

6.

Notice Juliet's statement at 2.1.158-166, an important statement of theme and images that we will see repeated, e.g., at 2.5.9-11 and 3.3.129-133.

7.

Turning practical, what plans do the lovers make (2.1.197-214)?

8.

Now that it is almost morning, where will Romeo go next?

2.2

(2.3 in most editions)

1.

What old themes and images does Friar Lawrence's opening soliloquy pick up, and what new themes and images does it introduce (2.2.1-30)? What point is he making about the plants? How is it relevant to the play's larger issues? Given Romeo's entry at 22.1, what double reference can "this weak flower" have in that line? How does this speech give an alternative explanation of the play to the "star-crossed lovers" explanation of the Prologue?

2.

What is Friar Lawrence's response to Romeo's new love (2.2.65-80)? Why will Friar Lawrence help Romeo and Juliet (2.2.90-92)?

2.3

(2.4 in most editions)

1.

What has Tybalt done (2.3.6-8)? How does Mercutio describe Tybalt (2.3.17-31)?

2.

What is Romeo's attitude when he enters at 2.3.31.1? How to Mercutio and Benvolio respond to him? How much does he tell them?

3.

How do the young men treat the Nurse when she enters (2.3.88-129)? Why has she come? What does she tell Romeo (2.3.145-152)? How hard is she to convince? What is Romeo's specific message (2.3.161-164)? What else does he tell the Nurse to do (2.3.168-172).

2.4

(2.5 in most editions)

1.

Is the Nurse as punctual as Juliet wishes? What comic bits happen when the Nurse finally arrives? What message does the Nurse finally give Juliet (2.4.64-73). What does the Nurse seem to think of true love now?

2.5

(2.6 in most editions)

1.

What themes and images come up in the conversation between Romeo and Friar Lawrence (2.5.1-15)? How do Romeo and Juliet talk about their love (2.5.24-34).

2.

What happens offstage immediately following this scene?

top

ACT 3

3.1

1.

What is the weather like?

2.

Why does Tybalt talk to Benvolio and Mercutio (3.1.33ff)? How does Mercutio respond?

3.

What happens when Romeo enters at 3.1.50.1? What does Tybalt say to Romeo, and how does Romeo respond? How does Mercutio respond?

4.

What action occurs at 3.1.84? What was Romeo trying to do? What happens to Mercutio?

5.

Note how Romeo responds (3.1.104-110). What does he mean in line 109?

6.

What happens when Tybalt returns (3.1.115.1)? Why does Romeo fight with Tybalt? (Sure, Mercutio is dead, but look closely at 3.1.117-124.) Is Romeo's participation in the feud really that different than the participation of Tybalt or of any other young man of Verona?

7.

What happens to Romeo at 3.1.131? Is he correct when he says "O, I am fortune's fool!" (3.1.131)?

8.

Note the arguments of the Capulets and Montagues in the last part of 3.1. Is Benvolio's reporting accurate (3.1.146-169)? Note the "lightning" image he uses at line 166. (See 2.1.158-162, 2.5.9-15, and 3.3.129-133). Is Benvolio correct in using this image? Has the scene happened "like lightning"?

9.

What is Romeo's punishment for killing Tybalt (3.1.181-191)?

3.2

1.

Read Juliet's "Gallop apace" soliloquy carefully (3.2.1-31). What is she saying? What is she waiting for? This is wonderful poetry, but is there anything here that bothers you? Why does she think of death and dismemberment at this point (3.2.21-22)? Does she know at this point about what happened in 3.1? What is the effect of putting this speech here, after 3.1, instead of before it?

2.

As the Nurse reports on the day's events (3.2.37-72), what does Juliet think has happened? Notice the repetition of the structure of delay that we saw when the Nurse returned in 2.5.

3.

What does Juliet think of Romeo when she hears that he has killed Tybalt (3.2.73-85)? What makes her change her mind by line 95? What is her response, finally, to the news of Romeo's banishment (3.2.107-137)? Is she ready to die? Does she at this point consider any alternatives? Notice line 137; the idea will be repeated in the last scene.

4.

Who takes the initiative at the end of the scene? What will she do?

3.3

1.

What is Romeo's response when he learns that he is banished? What makes him change his mind?

2.

In the last part of the scene (3.3.147-171), what are the warnings and the plans for Romeo's future? How does the Friar expect all of this to work out?

3.4

1.

What is old Capulet promising in 3.4? What has changed in his thinking since 1.2? Why has his thinking changed? How will what happens in 3.4 complicate the plot?

3.5

1.

Notice the opening stage direction. Where are Romeo and Juliet on the stage? Where does this scene usually take place in filmed versions? Why the difference? Why is it this way in Shakespeare's text?

2.

Notice the language of the speeches in 3.5.1-64. This is a literary type, an aubade or song to morning. How cheerful is it? What premonitions do Romeo and Juliet see? Notice especially Juliet's vision at 3.5.54-57.

3.

Why does Lady Capulet think Juliet is crying? What advice does she give (3.5.65-76)? What plan does Lady Capulet have for Romeo (3.5.87-92)? How does Juliet respond (3.5.93-102)? Notice how she covers herself at line 94. Keep all this talk of poison and sleeping potions in mind; it will return.

4.

What is Juliet's response to the news from her mother that she is to be married to Paris (3.5.112-123)? Is she being obstinate at lines 120-121, or is this a response that she thinks is acceptable, based on her discussion with her mother at 1.3.67-101? (She was not present at 1.2.6-17, but has her father said similar things to her?)

5.

What is her response to her father, and his to her (3.5.126-157)? How do Lady Capulet and the Nurse respond to him (3.5.157-175)? Does their response suggest that his behavior is normal or abnormal for him?

6.

What choices does Capulet give to Juliet (3.5.187-195)? How does Lady Capulet respond to what has happened (3.5.198-203)?

7.

What solution does the Nurse propose when Juliet asks for her comfort and advice (3.5.212-225)? How does Juliet respond (3.5.226-233). What has happened to Juliet's relationship with her Nurse? Whom can she count on now? What is her ultimate plan? (See 3.5.235-242.)

top

ACT 4

4.1

1.

What is Friar Lawrence's response to Paris's request for marriage? How does Juliet behave when she arrives? (Note the joking, especially about her face, in 4.1.18-36.)

2.

What is Juliet prepared to do if the Friar can't help her (4.1.50-67)? Notice the images in 4.1.77-88. Does Juliet have some sort of fixation on death, or is this normal given her situation? (Remember 1.5.131-132.)

3.

What is the Friar's anwer to the problem (4.1.89-124)? How will the solution work (4.1.95-112)? How will Romeo know about it (4.1.113-115 and 123-124)? What will be the outcome (4.1.115-117)?

4.

Does the solution seem workable? Where are the Friar's interests in this situation? (Among his other interests, remember 2.2.90-92.)

4.2

1.

How does Juliet respond to her father when she returns home (4.2.17-22)? How does her father respond? What element of his response complicates matters? (See 4.2.23-24, 33-37.)

4.3

1.

Read Juliet's potion speech carefully (4.3.14-57), noting the progression of her thoughts in the "what if" clauses. What does she see near the end (4.3.54-56)? Why, in terms of this vision, does she drink the potion? What is the effect of her state of mind during the speech? (She could, after all, have drunk it cheerfully, thinking only about her reunion with Romeo.)

4.4

(4.4 and 4.5 in most editions)

1.

What is the effect of this scene? You might compare it to the beginning of 1.5.

2.

Most editions begin 4.5 at our 4.4.28.

3.

Consider the division of the rest of the scene: the Nurse's jocularity (4.4.28-38), the heavy lamentations (4.4.39-122), and the scene with the musicians (4.4.123-166). What is the effect of these changes of mood? What, especially, is the effect of ending the scene with the musicians' comedy? Does the ending undercut the scene? What other effects might it have?

4.

Note the echo of 3.2.137 in 4.4.62-67. And note the emphasis on contraries in 4.4.111-117, certainly a theme of the play.

5.

Also note how the Friar begins the preparations in 4.4.1231-122 for what he assumes will be the outcome of these events (remember 2.2.90-92).

6.

In the musician scene, note that Peter quotes an actual poem of about twenty years before the play (4.4.148-150, completed at lines 162-163). What is the effect of introducing this actual poem into the play at this point?

top

ACT 5

5.1

1.

What is the effect of Romeo's opening speech (5.1.1-11) on an audience that knows what has happened in the previous scene? What especially is the effect Romeo's dream (lines 6-9)?

2.

Is Romeo's response in 5.1.25-26 what Friar Lawrence anticipated? What has the Friar forgotten to consider?

3.

What is the effect of the apothecary scene (5.1.34-86). Why does Shakespeare take up so much time with the apothecary, from initial description to Romeo's departure? Is a scene this long necessary for the plot? (Romeo does have a dagger, after all, as Juliet will note in the last scene.) Why the emphasis on poison and on the apothecary?

4.

Notice the recurring powder/fire image in 5.1.63-65. And note interestingly that the apothecary assumes Romeo will take the poison rather than use it on someone else (5.1.77-79).

5.2

1.

Why didn't Friar Lawrence's message reach Romeo? The "infectious pestilence" of 5.2.10 is probably the plague. Can you relate the idea of infestious pestilence or plague to the rest of the play in any way? In other words, is there a thematic importance to the reason that Friar John could not deliver the letter? Is it a realistic solution to the plot's need to keep the information from Romeo? What different explanations are given in the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann film versions of the play?

2.

What does Friar Lawrence plan to do now (5.2.21-29). Notice how his last line echoes Juliet's fears in her potion speech in 4.3.

5.3

1.

Are we surprised to see Paris instead of Romeo at the monument as the scene begins?

2.

How does the scene between Paris and Romeo (5.3.1-74) echo earlier scenes and events in the play?

3.

Look closely at Romeo's last speech (5.3.74-120). How does he approach the tomb, Juliet, and his own death? Notice the brief appearance of the lightning image at lines 90-91. And note the various descriptions of death, both in this speech and earlier at lines 45-48. Is Death being presented as another character in the play?

4.

What is the effect of having the Friar take so long to see and understand what has happened (5.3.121-147)?

5.

What happens when Juliet wakes? How does the Friar explain what has happened? How does he offer to help her? Does he stay with her? Does he do what you expected him to do? (See 5.3.148-160.)

6.

Is it ironic that the man dies by poison and the lady by a dagger? Or is death by a phallic dagger a fitting ending to Juliet's story?

7.

Why not just end the play there? What is the effect of the collection of suspects and the assembling of a sort of court that follows? What especially is the effect of being told the whole story by the friar and others?

.8.

Has the friar's plan (2.3.90-92) worked? Is this a true reconciliation of the two families or merely something temporary caused by the shock of what has happened?

top