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Romeo and Juliet is more than a story about love and tragic fate; it's a story about people. Shakespeare's characters are like all of us: they have strengths and weaknesses, a temper and a sense of humor. The plot doesn't just happen to them, it happens because of them. How each character thinks, and how he or she chooses to act determines what happens. In Romeo and Juliet, there are two kinds of characters, maturing characters and static characters.
1. MATURING CHARACTERS
These characters cause events to happen because they grow and change through the course of the play. Instead of being set in their ways, they think things through and react differently to different situations.
Characters in this category understand the seriousness of Romeo and Juliet's situation, and are affected by it.
2. STATIC CHARACTERS
They don't change. These people force the play to end the way it does, simply by being themselves and acting the way we expect them to act.
In Juliet, we watch something fascinating: a girl blossoming into a woman in the space of five days.
Before we watch this progression, let's look at some aspects of Juliet's character that stay the same.
1. SHE IS YOUNG
In the Italian version of this story, Juliet was 18; in Brooke's poem (the first English version) she was 16. Why does Shakespeare make her so young-"not yet fourteen"? In Shakespeare's day, it was legal for girls to marry at 12, but such early marriages were very rare.
Two possible reasons are: Shakespeare's daughter Susanna was about 13 when he wrote the play; and the English thought that Italian girls matured early. It is also possible that Shakespeare simply changed her age for dramatic reasons.
In any case, Juliet's age is a key to her character. She's innocent and full of hope. (This is not to say that she is naive. She couldn't live around her nurse without understanding sex, or live with her parents without seeing some of the realities and problems of marriage.) Because she's so young, we feel intense sympathy for her.
2. SHE IS BEAUTIFUL
Both Romeo and Paris fall in love with Juliet on sight alone. Before they're even introduced, Paris asks to marry her, and Romeo is "bewitched by the charm of looks." Her beauty inspires some of Romeo's most famous poetry: O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! (I, v, 46-49)
Even in the tomb, he is amazed that "Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath / Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty." (V, iii, 92-95)
3. SHE IS PRACTICAL
In this couple, Romeo is the romantic one, and Juliet is the practical one. We can see this contrast in the balcony scene. Romeo is content to speak poetic words of love, while Juliet sets up the marriage and the time and means of communication. She prefers short statements to flowery promises, and her practical nature leads her to worry about the suddenness of their passion: Although I joy in thee, I have no joy in this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden. (II, ii, 116-18)