Two teenagers from rival families fall in love, marry secretly, and take their own lives rather than live without each other. Despite the teenage melodrama, "Romeo and Juliet" remains one of Shakespeare's most enduring and popular plays, even if it wasn't his best -- lots of death, teen lovers and enchanting dialogue.
In the city of Verona, the Montagues and Capulets are locked in a deadly feud. Then a Montague teen named Romeo, infatuated with a Capulet girl named Rosaline, sneaks into a party to see her.... but instead encounters another Capulet girl named Juliet, and the two immediately fall in love. Since their families hate each other, their love must be expressed in secret.
Hoping to unite the two families, the kindly priest Friar Lawrence assists the two in marrying in secret. But then Juliet's cousin Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel, leading to the death of two men -- and Romeo's exile from Verona. Even worse, the Capulets have decided to marry Juliet to Count Paris -- leading to a desperate plan that goes horribly awry.
"Romeo and Juliet" is a play that is hard to pin down -- some see it as the poetry-laden embodiment of romantic love, while others view it as Shakespeare's witty jabs at fickle teenage infatuation and how melodramatic the kids are (Juliet is only thirteen!). But whatever you think it is, it's undeniable that it's a beautifully written, often-wrenching story.
Despite the simplicity of the story, Shakespeare spins it in a silken web of lush poetry ("O swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon/That monthly changes in her circled orb") and the famous speeches where Romeo and Juliet speak at night on a balcony. The mostly romantic play takes a dark turn towards the end, when only a few minutes might have changed the fates of "Juliet and her Romeo."
And Shakespeare seems rather fond of his characters here, depicting Romeo as a passionate young boy and Juliet as rather sweetly insecure young girl; there's also a fairly good cast of young men whose spirits are more elevated than their brains, and the kindly friar who rather naively hopes to use the kids to create peace.
But Shakespeare was also clearly aware that passionate teenage love is not necessarily the truest love ("Young men's love then lies/Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes"), and leaves you wondering what might have happened if Romeo and Juliet had lived.
Whether a gentle mockery of young love or a passionate, idealized romance, "Romeo and Juliet" is a timeless and lovely little play. Not the best of the Bard, but still quite good.