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GCSE Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet – Play Analysis

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most adored plays. The romantic story of the two star-crossed lovers is popular amongst exam boards. But, where to begin when it comes to getting to grips with one of the most iconic plays of all time for GCSE? This article gives a greater understanding of Romeo and Juliet. 

Studying Shakespeare can be overwhelming. Aside from understanding Elizabethan language which is now almost 400 years old, there are key themes to remember and important quotations to memorise. So, if you find you’re struggling with Romeo and Juliet then don’t panic, you are not on your own.  

When it comes to revising for Romeo and Juliet, it is suggested that students make sure that they really understand the key characters. The characters and their attitudes always play a part in the exam questions, for Romeo and Juliet. It also helps to revisit the plot of the play before the exam. When analysing Romeo and Juliet it is very important to understand the key themes of the play, this will help to interpret the play in the correct way. 

Romeo and Juliet. Romeo leaving Juliet's bedroom after their night as newly weds.

What is Romeo and Juliet about? 

Romeo and Juliet is a play written by William Shakespeare in around 1595 and is a very popular set text for GCSE English Literature.  The play is set in Verona and tells the story of two feuding families, The Montagues and the Capulets.  The children of these two families meet at a masked ball and fall in love, against a backdrop of violence and murder between the families.  A friendly Friar tries to help the lovers by marrying them in secret and then concocting a dangerous plan to help them escape their parents’ rivalry.  The plan spectacularly backfires and both Romeo and Juliet kill themselves at the end of the play.   The two families are finally reconciled in grief for their children.  

What are the major themes of Romeo and Juliet? 

Love 

Romeo and Juliet is arguably the most famous love story written in the English language and love is the dominant and most important theme of the play. The play focuses on all-encompassing romantic love between two teenagers, contrasted with arranged marriages favoured by the older generation. Shakespeare also shows the power of romantic love to shape and ultimately destroy lives and, in the last scene, the power of love to heal great rifts/ hostilities.

Important Quotes about the Theme of Love: 

  • Juliet: ‘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.’  
  • Romeo: ‘But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun…It is my lady, O it is my love! O, that she knew she were!’  
  • Juliet: ‘O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.’  
  • Juliet: ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’  

Fate 

Several main characters in Romeo and Juliet speak about the idea of fate guiding their lives, as if it is decided from the start how their lives will turn out.  This is particularly true in respect of the tragic denouement of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship.  The regular references to fate throughout the text create mounting dramatic irony, where the audience sense impending doom of which the characters on stage are not yet aware of. The idea of fate is closely linked throughout the play to the idea of death in a similar way to many Shakespearean tragedies.  

Important quotes on the theme of Fate: 

  • Chorus: ‘A pair of star-crossed lovers take their lives’ (Prologue) 
  • Romeo: ‘O, I am fortune’s fool!’  
  • Juliet: ‘O fortune, fortune! All men call thee fickle’  
  • Friar Laurence: ‘Unhappy fortune!’ 
  • Romeo: ‘Is it even so? Then I defy you, stars!’  
  • Friar Laurence: ‘A greater power than we can contradict hath thwarted our intents.’  

Family 

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare explores the complex nature of strong family relationships, both positive and negative. The Montague and Capulet families represent wealth and status in Verona, but these privileges are ultimately shown to be traps for the families’ youngest generation. Romeo and Juliet’s extreme youth make their alienation from their families all more tragic. 

  • Friar Laurence: ‘In one respect I’ll thy assistant be; for this alliance may so happy prove, to turn your households’ rancour to pure love’  
  • Romeo: ‘Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee doth much excuse the apparenting rage to such a greeting: villain am I none; therefore farewell; I see thou know’st me not.’  
  • Romeo: ‘good Capulet,- which name I tender as dearly as my own,- be satisfied.’  
  • Prince: ‘See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love. And I for winking at your discords too have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punished.’  

Romeo and Juliet Suggested Essay Topics: 

1.Love manifests itself in a multitude of ways in the play. Compare and contrast Romeo’s love for Rosaline with Romeo’s love for Juliet. Consider love as it exists in the Capulet household. How does love operate between Lord and Lady Capulet, Juliet, the Nurse, and Tybalt? 

2. Some readers consider the final scene in which both Romeo and Juliet die to be triumphant. In addition to the families being reconciled, how is the final scene triumphant? 

3. Consider Lord Capulet’s personality. How do his moods change and why? How does these mood swings affect Juliet, and how do they affect the course of the play? 

4. Compare and contrast Romeo’s reaction to the news of his banishment with Juliet’s reaction. 

5. Examine the role of Escalus, the Prince, as the play’s figure of authority. How far is he to blame for what happens? 

6. Some critics have said that Shakespeare had to kill Mercutio as he was becoming such a compelling character that he detracted from Romeo and Juliet. Do you agree? Why or why not? 

7. Light in its various forms recurs throughout the play. How does light mirror the action? How does the author use light to describe the characters and the changes they undergo? 

8. As the Friar picks his herbs, he tells us that nature’s tomb is also her womb and that what dies gives birth to new life. How do the Friar’s words anticipate upcoming events? Do you think that the Friar proactively creates events that follow, or does he react to situations that are beyond his control? Explain. 

9. Juliet is a very young girl; however, she shoulders a great deal of responsibility and manages a series of very difficult situations. Discuss Juliet’s maturity level and compare it to Romeo’s. Compare Juliet early in the play with Juliet later in the play. How has she changed? When did she change? Why did those changes occur? 

10. The first Prologue describes Romeo and Juliet as, “A pair of star-cross’d lovers.” Examine the way Shakespeare uses cosmic imagery in the play to emphasize the connection between Romeo and Juliet and their tragic deaths. 

More Romeo and Juliet resources: 

Thug notes.   

These funny videos tell the story of Romeo and Juliet in modern gangster parlance. 

BBC Bitesize 

Detailed notes and learner guides about the play. 

Spark notes 

The play is told in graphic novels and even memes, for those with different learning styles. 

Which Exam Boards have Romeo and Juliet as a set text for GCSE English Literature?  

All the UK GCSE Exam Boards include Romeo and Juliet as a set text, including the major English boards AQA, Edexcel and OCR.  

How to get a 9 with your Romeo and Juliet Set Text 

Show understanding of the context of the play 

To score the higher marks on the paper, students should be able to place the play in the context of Elizabethan or Jacobean England. As an example of this is understanding that although Juliet is getting married at the age of 13, this was in fact normal practice at the time and would not have seemed unusual to the audience.  This broader understanding allows the candidate to make more insightful analysis of the play.  Read around your set text and ask your teacher for suggestions for further reading. Watch film versions of the play to see how the various characters and scenes have been portrayed by different directors.  

Style 

Candidates should practice being able to write in a consistent critical style and nearly all GCSE students will need to practice this.  Students should therefore aim to write as many practice essays as possible prior to the exam and to use this practice to develop their core written arguments about the play. They should write practice essays until they have clear, detailed and well-structured notes on all the main GCSE essay topics that regularly come up for Romeo and Juliet. Ideas should always be supported appropriately by textual references and quotations.  

Use textual references and quotations to support and illustrate interpretations 

A candidate wanting to score a 9 must be able to analyse the language, form and structure used by Shakespeare to create meanings and effects in Romeo and Juliet, and be able to use the correct terminology to describe these literary devices. 

Write in good English 

Candidates wanting to score a 9 will need to use a wide range of vocabulary and sentence structure such that their essay is easy to read, its meaning clear and is written with accurate spelling and punctuation.  

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