Many students and casual readers tend to overlook the rapidity of Romeo and Juliet‘s narrative, which is unfortunate given the heightened sense of anxiety — and thus sublimity — that this hurried pace adds to the reading or viewing experience. The lovers’ courtship is explosively fast, so it follows that their demise should be explosively fast as well; hence Friar Lawrence’s well-intentioned but hastily ignored observation:
These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss, consume. (2.6.9-11)
Such a relationship would be wrongly construed in a slowly-paced narrative.
The action of the play begins on a Sunday morning and concludes on the following Wednesday morning: thus three full days pass from start to finish. To aid students and casual readers of the play, I have outlined the plot based on this three-day schematic:
*1.1: Gregory and Sampson initiate the brawl with Abram and the other Montague servants that results in the full-out street fight between the feuding families. Prince Escalus stops the street fight and declares that any Capulet or Montague (or servant of those families) who ever again publicly fights will be sentenced to death. Benvolio indicates to Lord and Lady Montague that he saw Romeo moping under the sycamore trees on the edge of the city earlier in the morning, and he thereafter questions Romeo about the origin of his recent depression.
*1.2: Lord Capulet and Paris discuss the count’s marriage proposal to Juliet; Capulet invites Paris to his ball later that evening. In this same scene, by chance, an illiterate Capulet servant meets Romeo and Benvolio in the street and asks Romeo to read the names of the people he needs to invite to Capulet’s ball. Benvolio notices that Rosaline, the girl whom Romeo is hopelessly in love with, will be there, so he suggests they crash the party so that Romeo can find another attractive girl.
*1.3: Lady Capulet approaches Juliet to see if she will agree to Paris’s marriage proposal. She dutifully — though unemotionally — agrees, saying she only consents because her parents do.
*1.4: Romeo, Benvolio, Mercutio, and their friends walk to the Capulet ball. Mercutio gives his famous Queen Mab speech to try to lighten Romeo’s mood and prove to him that dreams and fantasies amount to nothing. Before the scene concludes, Romeo indicates his suspicion that something fateful — “some consequence yet hanging in the stars” — will happen that night.
*1.5: The Capulet ball. Romeo sees Juliet and instantly forgets about Rosaline. Tybalt sees that Romeo has crashed the party, but his uncle, Capulet, tells him to ignore the offence. Romeo and Juliet meet and kiss for the first time, though soon after are momentarily separated; during this time, Romeo learns that Juliet is a Capulet and Juliet learns that Romeo is a Montague.
*2.1: Feeling downcast, Romeo runs away from his friends and escapes into Capulet’s orchard, hoping to meet up with Juliet again. Mercutio lewdly taunts Romeo about his passion for Rosaline (which we now know is dead) before going home for the night.
Early Monday Morning (Sometime around 3 am, let’s say)
*2.2: The balcony scene. Hiding in the bushes, Romeo watches Juliet stand on her balcony for a while before announcing his presence. They exchange vows of love and decide that they will get married the following day, provided Friar Lawrence consents to marry them. Romeo tells Juliet to send for him by 9 o’clock.
Later Monday Morning (Sometime around 6-7 am)
*2.3: Romeo asks Friar Lawrence to marry him to Juliet. Hoping that the marriage will end the feud, the friar agrees, but then cautions Romeo to take his love “wisely and slow.”v
*2.4: Benvolio tells Mercutio that Tybalt has sent a letter to the Montague housing challenging Romeo to a duel for the offence of crashing the Capulet ball. Romeo arrives, and feeling better now that he is in a mutually-loving relationship with Juliet, playfully banters with Mercutio. The Nurse come onto the scene with her servant, Peter, and asks to speak with Romeo confidently. Mercutio mocks the Nurse and then leaves with Benvolio. The Nurse angrily shouts after Mercutio and berates Peter for not standing up for her, and then she questions Romeo about the validity of his feelings for Juliet. Romeo assures her that he is true, and then he tells her to have Juliet ask permission to go to Friar Lawrence for confession, who she will really see to get married to Romeo. He then tells the Nurse to meet his servant behind the abbey wall, where she will get a rope ladder that Romeo will later use the climb up into Juliet’s room.
*2.5: The Nurse teases Juliet for a while by not giving her the information about Romeo, but finally relents and informs Juliet of Romeo’s gentlemanly behavior. She then tells Juliet to pretend she’s going to Friar Lawrence for confession, while she’s really going to get married.
*2.6: Romeo and Juliet get married. (Note: not 24 hours have passed since Romeo and Juliet first met)
Later Monday Afternoon
*3.1: Mercutio and Benvolio encounter Tybalt and other Capulets on the street; Mercutio mocks Tybalt for a while until Romeo comes onto the scene. Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel, but knowing that he is now Tybalt’s cousin-in-law, Romeo begs off and protests that he’s never done anything to insult the Capulets. Mercutio attempts to distract Tybalt’s attention from Romeo by engaging the “Prince of Cats” in a mock-duel. Romeo takes the duel for the real thing, and jumps between the fighters, only to bungle things and cause Tybalt to accidentally stab Mercutio. In a panic, Tybalt flees. Mercutio dies, though everyone on the scene thinks he is faking, even after he makes his famous curse: “A plague o’ both your houses!” Mercutio dies; Romeo, realizing the truth of the situation, hurries after Tybalt and engages him in a duel to avenge his friend. Romeo kills Tybalt, and then, realizing what he has done, shouts that he is “Fortune’s fool” and flees the scene. The families gather in the streets demanding justice from the Prince; the Prince declares that Tybalt’s death was assured since he killed Mercutio, but that Romeo cannot be blameless, since he participated in the duel. Therefore, Romeo is banished from Verona, under the proviso that he be killed if he ever is caught back in the city. (Note: this all takes place within the same afternoon that Romeo and Juliet get married in 2.6.)
*3.2: Juliet impatiently waits for night to come so that Romeo can sneak into her room. Soon after, though, the Nurse arrives and at length informs Juliet that Romeo has killed Tybalt. Juliet becomes frantic at first, but quickly thinks through the problem to realize that, while a terrible fate, this outcome is better than the alternative (i.e., that Romeo, her husband, had been killed instead of Tybalt). The Nurse then tells Juliet that she will go to Friar Lawrence’s cell to see if Romeo will come to Juliet’s room as originally planned. Before the Nurse leaves, Juliet gives her a ring to give Romeo as a sign that still loves him in spite of Tybalt’s murder.
*3.3: Friar Lawrence informs Romeo that he has been banished from Verona as punishment for Tybalt’s murder. Romeo repeatedly exclaims that this sentence is worth than death, despite the friar’s protestations that it is actually a good thing. The Nurse arrives and describes Juliet as “crying over” Romeo’s name; in response to this, Romeo desperately asks where in his body his name may be found so that he can stab it out; and he thereafter draws a dagger to kill himself. The friar violently scolds Romeo for this short-sighted impulsiveness and heatedly reminds him that he has much to be happy for. He concludes by sending Romeo in secret away to Juliet for the night, as originally planned.
*3.4: Lord Capulet, hoping to cheer Juliet up, arranges her marriage to Paris for Thursday. He says they will only invite half a dozen guests to prevent anyone from thinking that they are reveling too soon after Tybalt’s death.
*3.5: Romeo leaves Juliet after having spent their wedding night with her. (Note: this is the last time Romeo and Juliet see each other alive, which makes Juliet’s comment that Romeo looks as though he were pale and dead in a grave all the more ironic.) Lady Capulet arrives and tells Juliet that she will marry Paris on Thursday. Angered at the haste — and no doubt flustered since she is already married to Romeo — Juliet vehemently rejects the proposal. Lord Capulet comes by, and after hearing Juliet’s apparent ungratefulness, violently berates her to the point of verbal abuse (calling her, in effect, “pale, useless dead flesh). Her parents leave, and the Nurse advises Juliet forget about Romeo and marry Paris to appease her parents. Understandably feeling betrayed, Juliet coldly tells the Nurse she’ll go to Friar Lawrence to confess her sins of being “disobedient;” and after the Nurse has left, she vows she will never again share her secrets with her old caretaker.
*4.1: Friar Lawrence and Paris discussing the count’s upcoming wedding to Juliet, who arrives for “confession.” Paris attempts to flirt with her, but she coolly rebuffs his advances. Alone with the friar, Juliet threatens to kill herself unless he can devise a plan to keep her from marrying Paris. Friar Lawrence gives Juliet a special potion that will make her seem dead — though she will really be alive — after she drinks it. He tells her to go home, consent to marry Paris, patch things up with her parents, and then take the potion while she is alone at night. He then predicts she’ll be buried in the Capulet crypt as per custom, where she will stay until Romeo — who the friar will contact beforehand — will come to take her away to Mantua. Happy at a solution (convoluted though it is), Juliet races home with the potion.
*4.2: Capulet makes arrangements for the marriage on Thursday. Juliet enters and begs forgiveness of her father, who happily forgives her and moves the wedding day up to Wednesday.
*4.3: Juliet sends the Nurse away for the night and, after thinking through a litany of fears related to the friar’s plan (including the prospect of seeing the ghost of her dead cousin), she drinks the friar’s potion and falls into a fake death.
Early Wednesday Morning (Sometime around 3 am)
*4.4: Capulet directs the servants in their preparations for the wedding, and he instructs the Nurse to go wake Juliet so that she can get ready.
*4.5: The Nurse discovered Juliet “dead” in her bed, and the entire Capulet house erupts into mourning. Friar Lawrence arrives and begins to arrange Juliet’s “funeral.”
Later Wednesday Morning (Sometime around 6 am, let’s say)
*5.1: Romeo’s servant Balthasar arrives in Mantua with news of Juliet’s apparent death. Quickly turning crazed, Romeo sends his servant to buy horses to ride to the Capulet crypt, and he himself buys poison from an apothecary.
*5.2: Friar John, an acquaintance of Friar Lawrence, explains that he was not able to deliver Lawrence’s letter to Romeo in Mantua because a plague had kept him confined to Verona. Panicked, Lawrence races to the Capulet crypt to rescue Juliet from the tomb before she awakes and finds herself alone in the dark with corpses.
*5.3: Paris visits the Capulet crypt to mourn Juliet, and when he sees Romeo, challenges him to a duel. Romeo kills Paris, enters the tomb and finds Juliet; he then takes the poison, and dies. Friar Lawrence arrives, sees Romeo dead, and finds Juliet waking. He tries to persuade her to live in a nunnery, but she of course refuses. He thereafter leaves her to her fate in the tomb, while she briefly bemoans Romeo’s death and then kills herself with Romeo’s dagger. The guard arrives with the friar in captivity, and Prince Escalus comes soon thereafter with his attendants. The Capulets and Lord Montague arrive too, and the friar explains everything that has happened. Lord Capulet and Lord Montague apparently make amends, and they each vow to pay for statues in honor of their dead children.
Thus, Romeo and Juliet meet, fall in love, get married, and die within the course of three days. A bit unrealistic, perhaps, but this narrative simply would not function if it were spaced out over a lengthy period of time: there would be no urgency goading the various characters to their desperate ends, and the situations would therefore be much less chaotic. This urgency and chaos heightens our anxiety, which in turn unveils the play’s sublimity and heightens our appreciation of the narrative. The violent delights do indeed have violent ends, and the explosion that results is nothing if not a marvel to behold.