Romeo: Shakespeare's Famous Character

The Origins of this Famous Character Date Back to Ancient Times

Romeo and Juliet
Representación de Romeo y Julieta. W. and D. Downey / Getty Images

One of the original star-cross'd lovers, Romeo is the male half of the ill-fated pair who drive the action in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Much has been written about the origins of the character, and the influence Romeo has had on other young male lovers throughout Western literature. But Shakespeare's Romeo is an enduring representative of young love gone tragically wrong. 

What Happens to Romeo

Most interpretations of Romeo and Juliet estimate him to be about 16 years old, and Juliet to be about 13. The heir of the House of Montague, Romeo meets and falls in love with Juliet, the young daughter of the House of Capulet.

For reasons unexplained, the Montagues and Capulets are bitter enemies, so the young lovers know their affair will anger their families. But the titular couple isn't interested in family feuds, and quickly fall in love.  

Romeo and Juliet secretly marry with the help of his friend and confidant, Friar Lawrence. But the two are doomed from the start; after Juliet's cousin Tybalt kills Romeo's friend Mercutio; Romeo retaliates, killing Tybalt. He is sent into exile, only returning when he hears of Juliet's death.

But Juliet has only faked her death unbeknownst to Romeo, who kills himself in a fit of grief. She awakens to find him dead and takes her life, this time for real. 

Was Romeo's Death Fate?

After the young lovers die, the Capulets and Montagues agree to end their feud. Shakespeare leaves it mostly to his audience to decide whether this means that Romeo and Juliet's deaths are fated. Could the feud have been ended any other way? 

Questions long debated among Shakespearean scholars: Is the outcome of the play the result of bad luck? Or were Romeo and Juliet's deaths predestined as part of the legacy of their families' feud?

Origins of the Romeo Character

Most Shakespeare historians trace the origin of the Romeo character back to Greek myth. Ovid's Metamorphoses tells the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, two young lovers in Babylon who lived next to each other and communicated through cracks in the walls, their parents having forbid them meeting because of an ongoing family feud.

The similarities to Romeo and Juliet don't end there: When the pair arrange to meet finally, Thisbe arrives at the predetermined spot, a mulberry tree, to find a menacing lioness. She runs away, but accidentally leaves her veil behind. Pyramus finds the veil when he gets there and believes the lioness has killed Thisbe, so he falls on his sword (literally). Thisbe returns and finds him dead, then kills herself with his sword. 

While Pyramus and Thisbe may not have been Shakespeare's direct source for Romeo and Juliet, it was certainly an influence on the works from which Shakespeare drew. Romeo first appeared in Giulietta e Romeo, a 1530 story by Luigi da Porto, which was itself adapted from Masuccio Salernitano's 1476 work Il Novellino.

All of those later works can, in some way or other, trace their origins to Pyramus and Thisbe.