Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Romeo and Juliet
Act I


The first word, “Two,” works thematically through the play, referring intrinsically both to contentious warring factions and to unity in a pair. In sonnet form, a character serving as Chorus announces the family feud “Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean” (4): and note how “civil,” meaning citizens’, also has a secondary meaning of civilized or polite, which creates the snazzy oxymoron here. Without a spoiler alert, Chorus reports the coming tragedy that a “pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life” (6): and note here the ungrammatical unity in duality with the singular “pair,” the subject/verb disagreement “take,” the plural “their,” and the singular “life.” Two/one.

“‘Star-cross’d’ backed by ‘fatal’ has pretty much surrendered this drama to the astrologers,” but “nowhere else does Shakespeare show any tendency to believe in fate in this sense” (Goddard, I 117); so beware Chorus’ easy packaging of the tale. Chorus pretty much gives away the whole “two hours’ traffic of our stage” (12), if the reductive plot summary is of any value.

The sonnet prologues that introduce and frame act 1 and act 2 will have disappeared by the beginning of act 3. ‘Reality’ in the form of death and loss overtakes literary artifice, and the play is forced, early on, to acknowledge its own tragic shape, which stylized language cannot contain…. Throughout Romeo and Juliet artificiality in language will be a sign of lack of self-knowledge, a failure to acknowledge what is wrong in Verona. (Garber 190)



The theme of twos is further established: on the streets of Verona, two servants of Juliet Capulet’s family, “given the most un-Italian names of Sampson and Gregory” and “indistinguishable from English servingmen” (Asimov 476), exercise their wits, punning on the subjects of cowardice and phallic weapons. The phrase “the weakest goeth to the wall” (I.i.13-14) is the title of a play printed a year after the second quarto by the same printer, Creede (Farina 174), and attributed by some to the Earl of Oxford. Goaded perhaps by Gregory’s joking accusations of his lack of valor, Sampson jibes about taking Montague women rather violently. Obviously, considering their low rank, the family feud is longstanding. “Draw thy tool, here comes two of the house of Montague,” says Gregory (I.i.31-32). Sampson responds, “My naked weapon is out. Quarrel, I will back thee” (I.i.33-34). But it is Sampson who goads the two Montague servants by making “the rude gesture sometimes known as the ‘fig of Spain,’ or as ‘giving the fig'” (Garber 190). These Capulet servants are pretty cheesy. When Abram the Montague servant asks twice, “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” (I.i.44, 46), Sampson asks Gregory, “Is the law on our side if I say ay?” (I.i.47-48). Gregory speeds the build-up to the fight when it is advantageous to do so: “Say ‘better,’ here comes one of my master’s kinsmen” (I.i.58-59). Benvolio, a Montague nephew unnamed in the sources but whose name means “good will” — perhaps “good will to E.O., vs. “Malvolio”), tries to stop the fight. His name means “good will” and indeed he seems to manifest it, but Tybalt — a Capulet nephew and “as dour a son of pugnacity as Mercutio is a dashing one” (Goddard, I 125), “a sort of Mediterranean Hotspur” (Goddard, I 126) — challenges and fights him: “What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word / As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee. / Have at thee, coward!” (I.i.70-72). “Shakespeare does not give the nature of the feud between the Veronese households, and there is no indication that it is political in nature” (Asimov 476). Other citizens involve themselves in the brawl. The heads of the Montague and Capulet households and their wives enter, the men intending to join the fight.

Finally Escalus, Prince of Verona, who is fed up with these people he calls “beasts” (I.i.83), stops the fighting with threats of execution. “His name … is surely intended to call to mind the Greek playwright Aeschylus, the author of the Oresteia, the story of the fall of the House of Atreus, a warring family’s rise and catastrophic fall” (Garber 191). “Elizabeth, as sovereign. is portrayed by the Prince, who was incensed by the lengths to which the Montague-Capulet feud was carried, as the Queen was by the Oxford-Knyvet feud” (Ogburn and Ogburn 386). Escalus summons Capulet now, and “Montague, come you this afternoon, / … / To old Freetown, our common judgement-place” (I.i.98-100). “Old Freetown” = Villafranca [di Verona], which Richard Roe pinpointed geographically.

Benvolio reports to the Montague couple about Romeo moping “underneath a grove of sycamore / That westward rooteth from this city side” (I.i.121-122). Richard Roe determined that this was a geographically accurate eyewitness detail, but Catherine Hatinguais more recently identified the trees as plane trees. One wonders though, if both Roe and Shakespeare made the same misidentification, and/or Shakespeare liked the pun on “sick-amor.”

The Montagues also fret about Romeo’s anti-social mood, his weeping and sighing, and his reclusiveness: he “private in his chamber pens himself, / Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out, / And makes himself an artificial night” (I.i.138-140). “Pens himself in“? Or pens (writes) himself? Romeo’s affections “most are busied when they’re most alone” (I.i.129), echoing one of Oxford’s own early verses: “That never am less idle, lo, than when I am alone” (qtd. in Ogburn and Ogburn 389). Benvolio sees Romeo coming and vows to find out the cause of his behavior.

Romeo doesn’t know the time of day and confesses to being in love. Romeo indulges in the traditional overwrought Petrarchan self-absorption of love’s oxymorons (e.g., I.i.176, 180) and the insistence, “I have lost myself” (I.i.197); but it’s the pose, not the real deal. Lots of “O” declarations appear (Ogburn and Ogburn 395). Romeo is a “deliberate onstage caricature of the sonnet-writing, lovesick, moon-struck lover who places his lady on a pedestal, and is really in love either with the idea of love or, even more accurately, with the idea of himself as a lover” (Garber 192). And the lady, like Dian (I.i.209), is sworn to chastity: “She’ll not be hit / With Cupid’s arrow” (I.i.206-207), echoing a moment in A Midsummer Night’s Dream regarding Queen Elizabeth. “Romeo’s moan is that the girl he loves insists on chastity” (Asimov 479). Shake-speare’s Sonnets are also echoed: “O, she is rich in beauty, only poor / That, when she dies, with beauty dies her store./ … / For beauty starv’d with her severity / Cuts beauty off from all posterity” (I.i.213-218).
The Petrarchan mode is dominant now, or even Euphuism (Ogburn and Ogburn 1070; Anderson 161), but “When Romeo falls in love with Juliet, his language changes, and becomes sharply inventive, witty, and original” (Garber 192). Benvolio thinks Romeo should shop around, but Romeo has eyes only for one woman (and he hasn’t met Juliet yet). “We never learn much about Rosaline. She is glimpsed, once, at the Capulet ball, but she is not a dramatic character in the play” (Garber 192).

Many Oxfordians point to the autobiographical dimension of the street-fights and de Vere’s duel with Sir Thomas Knyvet in March 1581/82 which precipitated a series of brawls and ambushes through the year in which some servants of the two houses (Vere and Howard) were indeed killed. Oxford received a severe leg-wound, like Cassio in Othello. And the poet refers to himself as “lame” in the Sonnets, with the potential literal meaning traditionally dismissed as fanciful. The feud originated with Oxford’s affair with Anne Vavasour, the young dark lady.


A young nobleman, Paris, is asking Capulet for his daughter’s hand in marriage. At thirteen (I.ii.9), she’s a bit young! “Shakespeare does not bother giving the ages of any of the heroines of his other early plays; only in this one does he make an exception, and for no obvious reason, he emphasizes it strenuously” (Asimov 480). Anne Cecil was betrothed to Oxford at 14 and married him when she turned 15, and Juliet in previous versions had been older than this (Farina 176; cf. Anderson 51). So Lord Burghley can interpret the relationship in the play the way Polonius insists that Hamlet’s craziness is distraction for his daughter. Juliet can be superficially Anne Cecil, but really is primarily Anne Vavasour, who was also a teenager (Ogburn and Ogburn 386, 399).

Capulet suggests he wait two years, contradicting his later haste (giving Kristian Smidt evidence of revision). “Earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she; / She’s the hopeful lady of my earth” (I.ii.14-15). But if she consents when Paris woos, what can one do? Paris is invited to attend the feast tonight at Capulet’s house, and a servant — a clown figure — is sent to deliver invitations to more guests. The servant is illiterate and, on the street, asks Romeo to read the list. Since “fair Rosaline” is on the list, Benvolio urges Romeo to attend to see her in the context of other ladies: “Tut, you saw her fair, none else being by” (I.ii.94): a notion on which Portia expounds in the last act of The Merchant of Venice. The two will attend, Romeo hoping to see Rosaline and Benvolio hoping he’ll see someone else.

The reference in this scene to a hypothetical “broken shin” (I.ii.52) brings to mind the consequences to de Vere, who received a leg wound in his duel with Knyvet.


Lady Capulet calls for her daughter Juliet and brings up the topic of her age: she’ll turn fourteen on August 1st (I.iii.13-18). Lady Capulet, indicating she was Juliet’s age when Juliet was born, seems to be about 28 (Asimov 482). The bawdy and chatty Nurse recalls Juliet’s childhood (like, uh, last week?): “‘Tis since the earthquake now aleven years, / And she was wean’d” (I.iii.23-24). England had a couple earthquakes, but a 1570 quake in Italy destroyed Ferrara; and eleven years later, 1581, matches many other matters topical to Oxford’s life and troubles.

The Nurse repeats a story about the toddler Juliet falling down and her late husband saying, “Yea … dost thou fall upon thy face? / Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit, / Wilt thou not, Jule?” Juliet, not understanding the sexual innuendo, had said, “Ay” (I.iii.41-44; cf. 55-57). This the Nurse finds hilarious. “In the opening scenes of the play the Nurse’s earthiness and practicality, as well as her frankness in sexual matters, offer a welcome antidote to the artifice, false idealism, and even prissiness embodied in Lady Capulet’s advocacy of Paris…. The audience is more likely to be pleased by the volubility and sexual frankness of this forthright descendant of the Wife of Bath” (Garber 196).

Juliet’s Nurse, despite her popularity, is altogether a much darker figure. Like Mercutio, she is inwardly cold, even toward Juliet, whom she has raised. Her language captivates us, as does Mercutio’s, but Shakespeare gives both of them hidden natures much at variance with their exuberant personalities. … Juliet, like her late twin sister, Susan, is too good for the Nurse, and there is an edge to the account of the weaning that is bothersome, since we do not hear the accents of love. (Bloom 97-98)

Missoula teacher Sylvia Morey corrects Bloom’s error here.

Susan is NOT Juliet’s twin, but the daughter of the Nurse. As was the custom of the time, Lady Capulet hired the Nurse (Angelica/Angel) when they (both the Nurse and Lady Capulet) were pregnant. The Nurse was probably 3-4 months further along in her pregnancy than Lady Capulet, so when the Nurse gave birth to Susan, she would have 2-3-4 months time to establish her milk supply. And then when Lady Capulet gave birth to Juliet, Juliet was given to the Nurse to breastfeed. That is what is meant by the term “wet-nurse.” Because of the high infant mortality rate, Susan died at some point. The Nurse comments, “Well, Susan is with God; she was too good for me” (I.iii.24-25) which relates to the religious view that people (babes included) were better off in Heaven. Think of Friar Laurence’s consoling speech (IV.v.74-93) to Lord and Lady Capulet — that good parents only want what is best for their child, and therefore they should be happy that Juliet was in Heaven. Also note the Nurse’s remark about Juliet: “thou hadst sucked wisdom from thy teat” (I.iii.75). By having a “wetnurse” for Juliet, Lady Capulet could leave Juliet. For example, when the Nurse is recalling how old Juliet is to the day, she remarks that Lady Capulet was in Mantua. The Nurse also recalls the weaning process in which she “laid wormwood to my dug…. When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool, To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug!” (I.iii.31-37).

Thomas Cecil, Oxford’s brother-in-law, had a daughter Susan who died in 1575 (Ogburn and Ogburn 403). The reference to the earthquake (I.iii.23) has been aligned with a very minor one in England in 1580 (so that some editors date the play from 1591), but Verona experienced an earthquake of some severity in 1570, one that destroyed Ferrara.

When the Earl of Oxford wintered in Italy in 1575, some five years after the great catastrophe, evidence of the widespread ravages would have still remained. Small homes might have been rebuilt within five years, but not the castles, palaces, churches and great public buildings. The earthquake in England in 1580 as bad as it may have seemed to Englishmen, did relatively little damage, but it would have refreshed Oxford’s mind as to the devastation wrought by the great earthquake in Italy in 1570. (Clark 476; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 403)

Lady Capulet broaches the subject of marriage, claiming that “By my count, / I was your mother much upon these years / That you are now a maid” (I.iii.71-73) — seeming to mean that she was already a mother when she was Juliet’s age, but really speaking a tautology: that she’s been Juliet’s mother for as long as Juliet has been alive. Oops. The Nurse is enthusiastic at the prospect for Juliet, and Lady Capulet describes Paris’ face as a book: “find delight writ there with beauty’s pen; / … / And what obscur’d in this fair volume lies / Find written in the margent of his eyes” (I.iii.82-86). A secondary meaning from a revised layer of the play may refer here to the Fair Youth (Ogburn and Ogburn 407, 815). A docile Juliet announces her obeisance as a servant announces that the guests are starting to arrive.


Romeo, Benvolio, and Romeo’s friend Mercutio — “the most notorious scene-stealer in all of Shakespeare” (Bloom 93), “representing for this play the spirit of creative imagination and improvisation” (Garber 203) and the flip side of Romeo (Farina 175) — head towards the Capulet home to crash the party and dance. “Romeo was the poet-lover-courtier aspect of Oxford, whereas Mercutio is the mercurial side, the dashing wit, to whom every word is a jest and every jest but a word, while Benvolio represents the good will he felt and wished to practice” (Ogburn and Ogburn 387). Mercutio “is the lightsome and the euphuistic side of Oxford (Ogburn and Ogburn 396). So instead of two we have three gentlemen of Ver-ona, three sides of one-Ver.

“The ‘visor for a visor’ [I.iv.29f] points up the secret authorship: the mask for one who is already masked, that is to say” (Ogburn and Ogburn 396). Perhaps there is something of an anagram in the name: “Me-turc-io, or Me, the Turk, E.O.” (Ogburn and Ogburn 398).

Romeo is in a funk about Rosaline. Love “pricks like thorn” (I.iv.26); “This was a barbed thrust, for it informed Elizabeth — as Oxford was to inform her again in the Sonnets — that her motto, Rosa sine spina (A Rose without a thorn) was not applicable to the particular Tudor Rose which was herself” (Ogburn and Ogburn 407). The animated but cynical Mercutio mocks Romeo’s supposed love-agony. Romeo says at one point, “For I am proverb’d with a grandsire phrase, / I’ll be a candle-holder and look on” (I.iv.37-38). The Earl of Oxford’s grandmother’s name was Elizabeth Trussell; “‘Trussell’ is an old way of spelling ‘trestle,’ and an old meaning of the word ‘trestle’ is a stand or frame for candles or tapers burning in religious worship. It can, therefore, be literally said that through his grandmother, the Earl was a candle-holder” (Holland, qtd. in Clark 473; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 396). Mercutio’s puns on “dun” (I.iv.40f) refer obscurely to Elizabeth Trussell’s grandfather Sir John Dun (Ogburn and Ogburn 397).

Romeo brings up the subject of dreams, whereat Mercutio gives his famous, if odd, Queen Mab speech about a diminutive fairy who influences dreams. “Mercutio’s Mab is the midwife of our erotic dreams, aiding us to give birth to our deep fantasies…. Mercutio is setting us up for the revelation of Mab as the nightmare, the incubus who impregnates maids. Romeo interrupts to say: ‘Thou talkst of nothing,’ where ‘nothing’ is another slang term for the vagina” (Bloom 95).

Romeo senses trouble:

my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall fearfully begin his fateful date
With this night’s revels, and expire the term
Of a despised life clos’d in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.


Inside the Capulet house, the servants grapple with their chores among so many people. Capulet welcomes everyone, especially ladies who have no corns on their feet for they can dance, and he tries to recall how long it’s been since he was at a masked ball. “Capulet is certainly a mild caricature of Burghley as genial host. Lord Burghley was inveterately hospitable to the great and kept a full record of those who dined with him” (Ogburn and Ogburn 399).

Romeo sees Juliet and it’s love at first sight: “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! / For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night” (I.v.52-53). Romeo “leaves fair Rosaline (the Tudor Rose) for Juliet-Anne” Vavasour (Ogburn and Ogburn 204). Tybalt knows Romeo’s voice and tries to attack him but old Capulet calms matters; he tries to maintain peace and party atmosphere, and he has heard only good things about Romeo. Tybalt withdraws, seething. Since the name evokes Tibert the cat in the story of Reynard the Fox, “the very use of the name at once brings up the picture of this particular Capulet as a quarrelsome and vicious tomcat” (Asimov 478). “Tybalt is a kind of character we will encounter frequently in Shakespeare’s plays in one guise or another, an old-style hero from a world that is almost mythic, primitive, or tribal, a spirit of heroic warfare and revenge … on the one hand, heroic, but on the other, unable to function in a modern world of politics and compromise, the world of The Prince, the world of law and language” (Garber 202).

Tybalt’s “Pinching perforce with willful choler meeting” (I.v.92) echoes an early E.O. poem: “Patience perforce is such a pinching pain” (qtd. in Ogburn and Ogburn 389).

Romeo and Juliet speak in a shared sonnet form at this first meeting (I.v.92ff), “a sonnet that is witty as well as lyrical, that uses religious imagery but somewhat subverts it by its admission of physicality” (Wells 80): “My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand / To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss” (I.v.95-96). This may be a symbolic representation of the scintillating match of wits Oxford enjoyed at court on meeting the young “dark lady,” Anne Vavasour. “The sonnet tradition of unattainable or unrequited love is turned inside out, and the artifice of conventional language goes with it. This is love at first sonnet” (Garber 194).

The Nurse eventually interrupts, trying to scoot Juliet off to her mother, and she tells Romeo that Juliet is a Capulet. As the party is breaking up, Juliet has the Nurse find out Romeo’s name: “Immediately this guileless girl of almost fourteen becomes a clever strategist, decoying the Nurse with false preliminary inquiries so that she can attain her true object, to know Romeo’s name” (Garber 205). Juliet discovers, to her dismay, he’s a Montague:

My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me
That I must love a loathed enemy.

Deep tragic irony, or high drama from an adolescent with a cliché romantic imagination about a supposedly dangerous boy that the totally unfair family will object to?

Romeo and Juliet, Act by Act

Romeo and Juliet Intro

Romeo and Juliet Act I

Romeo and Juliet Act II

Romeo and Juliet Act III

Romeo and Juliet Act IV

Romeo and Juliet Act V