The chorus introduces the play and establishes the plot that will unfold. They explain how two families in Verona – the Capulets and the Montagues - have reignited an ancient feud, and how two lovers, one from each family, will commit suicide after becoming entangled in this conflict. These lovers are Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague. Only after the suicides will the families decide to end their feud.
Act One, Scene One
Two Capulet servants – Sampson and Gregory – loiter on the street, waiting for some Montague servants to pass. They banter, using sexual innuendo and raunchy puns to joke about women, and speak with animosity about the Montagues. They lament that the law prohibits fighting, and wonder how to start a battle legally.
When the Montague servants – Abram and Balthasar – arrive, Sampson bites his thumb at them (which is rude but not illegal). Insulted, Abram confronts Sampson and a fight begins.
Benvolio, Romeo's cousin, arrives to discover the fight in progress. Drawing his sword, he commands them to stop. Then, Tybalt, Juliet's cousin, walks onto the street. Upon seeing his rival, Benvolio, Tybalt also draws his sword, reigniting the altercation.
Lord Capulet – the patriarch of the family – arrives at the battle, and demands a sword so that he might join in. However, Lady Capulet restrains him, even after Lord Montague emerges ready to fight.
It turns out that the Citizens of the Watch have spread word of the street fight, and Prince Escalus arrives before anyone is killed. The Prince chides the Montagues and the Capulets for their mutual aggression, which he believes is making the streets of Verona unsafe. The Prince then orders everyone to return home and cease hostilities at the risk of great punishment. He personally accompanies the Capulets home.
The Montagues and Benvolio remain on stage. The family asks Benvolio where Romeo is, and he tells them that the boy has been in a strange mood lately. When a somber Romeo finally appears, the Montagues ask Benvolio to determine the cause of his melancholy, after which they depart.
When Benvolio asks Romeo about the source of his gloom, Romeo explains that he is pining for a woman named Rosaline, who plans to remain chaste for the rest of her life. This unrequited love is the cause of Romeo's depression.
Act One, Scene Two
Paris Lord Capulet for permission to marry Juliet, but Capulet insists that Paris should be patient, since Juliet is only thirteen. However, Capulet does grant Paris permission to woo Juliet and thereby win her approval. Capulet suggests to Paris that he should try to impress Juliet at a masked ball that the Capulets are hosting that evening. Capulet then hands his servant Peter a list of names and orders the man to invite everyone on the list to the party.
Out on the streets, Peter runs into Romeo and Benvolio, who are talking about Rosaline. Peter cannot read, so he asks them to help him interpret the list. Romeo and Benvolio comply, and upon reading the list, they discover that Rosaline will be at the Capulets' party. They decide to attend - even though it is a Capulet party, they will be able to disguise their identities by wearing masks.
Act One, Scene Three
At the Capulet home, Lady Capulet asks the Nurse to call for Juliet. While they await the girl’s arrival, the Nurse laments the fact that Juliet will be fourteen in under two weeks. When Juliet arrives, the Nurse tells a rambling, embarrassing story about how her late husband had once made an inappropriate sexual joke about Juliet when she was an infant. The Nurse keeps telling her endless tale until Juliet orders her to stop.
Lady Capulet tells Juliet about Paris’s intention to marry her. The mother describes Paris as beautiful, comparing him to a fine book that only lacks a cover. Juliet does not promise anything to her mother, but she does agree to study Paris that night.
Act One, Scene Four
Romeo, Benvolio, and their friend Mercutio walk through the streets to the Capulets' party. Romeo remains depressed over Rosaline, so Mercutio tries to cheer him up with a story about Queen Mab, a fictitious elf who infiltrates men's dreams. Romeo hushes his friend, admitting his concern about the attending a party at the home of his rivals.
Act One, Scene Five
At the party, Romeo mopes in the corner, away from the dancing. From this vantage point, he notices Juliet, and falls in love with her immediately.
Tybalt overhears Romeo asking a servingman about Juliet, and recognizes the masked man's voice. However, before Tybalt can create a scene, Lord Capulet reminds him of the prince’s prohibition of public fighting, and orders the boy to stand down.
Romeo approaches Juliet and touches her hand. They speak together in a sonnet, and Romeo eventually earns Juliet's permission for a kiss. However, before they can talk further, the Nurse calls Juliet to see her mother. After Juliet leaves, Romeo asks the Nurse her name, and is shocked to learn that his new object of desire is a Capulet.
As the party winds down, Juliet asks her Nurse about Romeo. When she learns about Romeo’s identity, she is heartbroken to find out that she has fallen in love with a "loathed enemy" (1.5.138).
Though Romeo and Juliet is ostensibly a tragedy, it has endured as one of Shakespeare’s most renowned masterpieces because of its magnificent blend of styles and remarkable, multi-faceted character development. The play often veers from meticulous plot into more free-form explorations, making it difficult to categorize. However, these are singularly Shakespearean qualities that are apparent from the play’s first Act. Romeo and Juliet begins with a Chorus, which establishes the plot and tone of the play. This device was hardly new to Shakespeare, and in fact mirrors the structure of Arthur Brooke's The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, from which Shakespeare adapted Romeo and Juliet.
Additionally, the Chorus poses the question of whether or not Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy. During Shakespeare's time, it was typical for a tragedy to begin with a Chorus. In Romeo and Juliet, the opening sonnet presents dire enough circumstances to support that convention. However, tragedy in its strictest form presupposes certain formal conceits. Most important is the idea that an individual (or individuals) is (or are) defeated by forces beyond his or her control; tragedies most often celebrate human willpower in the face of bad luck or divine antagonism. And yet, the forces at play in Romeo and Juliet are hardly beyond human control. Instead, the Montagues and Capulets have allowed their feud to fester. This is evident from the first scene, when even the patriarchs of both families enter the public street fight, ready to kill. The Chorus introduces Shakespeare's unique approach to tragedy by introducing certain established tropes of that genre but by refusing to lay the blame at the universe’s feet.
In addition, the Chorus also introduces certain sources of dramatic tension that re-appear throughout the rest of the play. For example, the diametric opposition between order and disorder is central to to Romeo and Juliet. In the Prologue, the Chorus speaks in sonnet form, which was usually reserved for a lover addressing his beloved. The sonnet is a very structured form of poetry, which indicates a level of order. However, the content of this sonnet – two families who cannot control themselves, and hence bring down disaster on their heads – suggests incredible disorder. The conflict between order and disorder resonates through the rest of Act I. Immediately following the Sonnet is the introduction of Sampson and Gregory, two brutish men whose appearance lays the groundwork for a disordered street brawl. Furthermore, the disorder within the play is evidenced by inverted circumstances. Servants start the quarrel, but soon draw the noblemen into it. The young men enter the fight, but the older men soon try to defy their aged bodies by participating. Moreover, the fact that the near disaster takes place in broad daylight in a public place undermines any expectation of security in Verona.
This underlying theme of disorder is also manifest in the hybrid of styles that Shakespeare employs. The Chorus establishes the fact that the story is meant to be tragic, and yet, Abram and Gregory are typically comic characters, both because of their low status and the lighthearted nature of their speech. While they do discuss their aggression towards the Capulets, they also make numerous sexual puns, undoubtedly intended to amuse the audience. That these sexual innuendos often slide into violent talk of rape only underscores the difficulty of categorizing Shakespeare’s tonal intentions.
It is important to note that Shakespeare wanted Romeo and Juliet to be recognized as tragedy, even though he subverts the genre in many ways. There are a few motifs in Romeo and Juliet that reveal this intention. The first is the recurring motif of death. In Act I, there are several moments where the characters foreshadow the death to come. After she meets Romeo, Juliet states, "If he be married, / My grave is like to be my wedding bed" (1.5.132). When Benvolio tries to stop the street fight, he remarks, "Put up your swords. You know not what you do" (1.1.56). The phrasing of Benvolio's line is a Biblical allusion because it evokes Jesus’s insistence that his apostles cease fighting the Roman guards during his arrest. This symbolism foreshadows Juliet’s death, which occurs after her resurrection.
The Nurse also makes two references that foreshadow Juliet’s death. In the story she tells to Lady Capulet, the Nurse speaks of Juliet’s fall when she was a child. The story foreshadows the fact that Juilet will fall, evoking the medieval and Renaissance concept of the wheel of fortune. Over the course of the play, Juliet indeed rises (appearing at her balcony to speak to Romeo) and falls (her death in the vault). The Nurse also foreshadows the tragedy when she tells Juliet, "An I might live to see thee married once" (1.3.63). Alas, this is exactly what will occur, and Juliet dies barely one day after her marriage. So even as he veers between styles and forms, Shakespeare does ensure that Romeo and Juliet a tragic story.
Even more impressive than his stylistic virtuosity is Shakespeare’s carefully calibrated character development. Almost every character in Romeo and Juliet reveals his or her inner nature through action. For instance, we learn in Act 1 that Benvolio is a pacifist, while Tybalt is hot-headed. Other characters that Shakespeare introduces in Act 1 reveal a glimmer of their inner desires even if they do not yet have a chance to express them. For instance, in the scene between Lord Capulet and Paris, the patriarch introduces his desire to control his daughter. While theoretically defending Juliet's youthful freedom, he also reveals his tendency to think of her as an object by granting Paris the opportunity to woo her. Lord Capulet's attitude towards Juliet will later force the final, tragic turn of events.
Eminent literary critic Harold Bloom believes that, along with Juliet, Mercutio and the Nurse are Shakespeare’s most marvelous creations in the play. The Nurse is intriguing because of her self-deceit. While she claims to care deeply for young Juliet, it becomes evident that she selfishly wishes to control the girl. Her story about Juliet's fall and sharing her late husband's sexual joke are wildly inappropriate comments, and reveal the Nurse's self-obsession and her fascination with sex. For such a functional character, the Nurse is particularly memorable, and a shining example of Shakespeare's ability to create multi-faceted personalities, even for his supporting characters.
Similarly, Shakespeare reveals a lot about Mercutio's character in the young man's Queen Mab speech. At first glance, the speech (and the preceding scene) paint Mercutio as a colorful, sexually-minded fellow, who prefers transient lust over committed love. However, as his speech continues, Mercutio portrays a level of intensity that Romeo lacks. Queen Mab is a rather vicious figure who forces sexuality upon women in a largely unpleasant and violent way. While he shares this story, Mercutio's tone becomes so passionate that Romeo must forcefully quieten him. This speech serves as an indication that Mercutio is a far more mature and insightful figure than his behavior immediately suggests.
In contrast, Prince Escalus and the Citizens of the Watch are largely two-dimensional characters. They serve a merely functional purpose, representing law and order in Verona. While the Prince frequently exhibits strong authority - declaring street fighting illegal and later, banishing Romeo - his decrees only produce minimal results, and the law is never as powerful as the forces of love in the play. Meanwhile, the Citizens of the Watch, though silent, are a nod to the society's attempts to protect itself. Shakespeare regularly indicates that the Citizens are always nearby, which emphasizes the ongoing conflict between the feuding families and society's attempts to restore order.
Though Romeo and Juliet has become an archetypal love story, it is in fact a reflection of only one very specific type of love – a young, irrational love that falls somewhere between pure affection and unbridled lust. Sexuality is rampant throughout the play, starting with the servants' bawdy jokes in the first scene. Also, the lovers do not think of their passion in religious terms (a religious union would have signified a pure love to a Renaissance audience)
Meanwhile, Romeo is a far less complex character than Juliet – indeed, in Shakespeare’s work, the heroines are often more multi-dimensional than their male counterparts. In Act 1, Romeo's most pronounced qualities are his petulance and capriciousness. His friends (and potentially, the audience) find Romeo's melancholy mood to be grating, and are confused when he quickly forgets Rosaline to fall madly in love with Juliet. However, Romeo stands apart from the other men in Act 1. Even Benvolio, the eternal pacifist, has recognized the violent nature of the world, and most of the other men quickly turn to anger and aggression as solutions to their problems. Romeo, on the other hand, exhibits qualities that could be considered feminine by Shakespearean standards – he is melancholy and introverted, choosing to remain distant from both the feud and the violence in Verona.
Juliet, on the other hand, is pensive and practical. When her mother insists she consider Paris as a potential mate, Juliet is clearly uninterested, but understands that a vocal refusal will gain her nothing. Her act of innocent submission will allow her to be devious later on, to her advantage. In Act 1, Juliet is already showing her powers of deception by asking her Nurse about two other men before asking after Romeo because she does not want to arouse her chaperone’s suspicions.
Romeo and Juliet's quick attraction to one other must be viewed through the lens of their youth. Even when Romeo is lusting after Rosaline, he is more interested in her sexuality than her personality, and he is upset to learn that she has chosen a life of chastity. Romeo feels sparks of desire for Juliet before they even speak, reinforcing the young man's quick passions. Shakespeare further underscores Romeo's sexual motivation by associating his and Juliet's love with darkness. For example, Romeo compares Juliet to "a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear" when he first sees her (1.5.43). The darkness is central to their love, as they can only be together when the day is over. Throughout the play, Shakespeare associates daytime with disorder – not only does the Act I street fight occur in the daytime, but Romeo also kills Tybalt during the day – while order appears within the secrecy afforded by nighttime.
However, the love between Romeo and Juliet is not frivolous. In the fifth scene, the lovers speak in a sonnet that invokes sacrilegious imagery of saints and pilgrims. This indicates the way in which these lovers can only be together when they are completely separated from the flawed morality and complications of the world around them. This disorder is ultimately the obstacle that keeps the apart - and they will eventually decide to withdraw from the world in order to be together. Both Romeo and Juliet believe in the purity of their love - their future may be uncertain, but in the moment, their passion is all-consuming.