The play, set in Verona, Italy, begins with a street brawl between Montague and Capulet servants who, like their masters, are sworn enemies. Prince Escalus of Verona intervenes and declares that further breach of the peace will be punishable by death. Later, Count Paris talks to Capulet about marrying his daughter Juliet, but Capulet asks Paris to wait another two years and invites him to attend a planned Capulet ball. Lady Capulet and Juliet's nurse try to persuade Juliet to accept Paris's courtship.
Meanwhile, Benvolio talks with his cousin Romeo, Montague's son, about Romeo's recent depression. Benvolio discovers that it stems from unrequited infatuation for a girl named Rosaline, one of Capulet's nieces. Persuaded by Benvolio and Mercutio, Romeo attends the ball at the Capulet house in hopes of meeting Rosaline. However, Romeo instead meets and falls in love with Juliet. Juliet's cousin, Tybalt, is enraged at Romeo for sneaking into the ball but is only stopped from killing Romeo by Juliet's father, who does not wish to shed blood in his house. After the ball, in what is now called the "balcony scene", Romeo sneaks into the Capulet orchard and overhears Juliet at her window vowing her love to him in spite of her family's hatred of the Montagues. Romeo makes himself known to her, and they agree to be married. With the help of Friar Laurence, who hopes to reconcile the two families through their children's union, they are secretly married the next day.
Tybalt, meanwhile, still incensed that Romeo had sneaked into the Capulet ball, challenges him to a duel. Romeo, now considering Tybalt his kinsman, refuses to fight. Mercutio is offended by Tybalt's insolence, as well as Romeo's "vile submission", and accepts the duel on Romeo's behalf. Mercutio is fatally wounded when Romeo attempts to break up the fight. Grief-stricken and wracked with guilt, Romeo confronts and slays Tybalt.
Benvolio argues that Romeo has justly executed Tybalt for the murder of Mercutio. The Prince, now having lost a kinsman in the warring families' feud, exiles Romeo from Verona, under penalty of death if he ever returns. Romeo secretly spends the night in Juliet's chamber, where they consummate their marriage. Capulet, misinterpreting Juliet's grief, agrees to marry her to Count Paris and threatens to disown her when she refuses to become Paris's "joyful bride". When she then pleads for the marriage to be delayed, her mother rejects her.
Juliet visits Friar Laurence for help, and he offers her a potion that will put her into a deathlike coma for "two and forty hours". The Friar promises to send a messenger to inform Romeo of the plan so that he can rejoin her when she awakens. On the night before the wedding, she takes the drug and, when discovered apparently dead, she is laid in the family crypt.
The messenger, however, does not reach Romeo and, instead, Romeo learns of Juliet's apparent death from his servant, Balthasar. Heartbroken, Romeo buys poison from an apothecary and goes to the Capulet crypt. He encounters Paris who has come to mourn Juliet privately. Believing Romeo to be a vandal, Paris confronts him and, in the ensuing battle, Romeo kills Paris. Still believing Juliet to be dead, he drinks the poison. Juliet then awakens and, discovering that Romeo is dead, stabs herself with his dagger and joins him in death. The feuding families and the Prince meet at the tomb to find all three dead. Friar Laurence recounts the story of the two "star-cross'd lovers". The families are reconciled by their children's deaths and agree to end their violent feud. The play ends with the Prince's elegy for the lovers: "For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."
Before Shakespeare's time (and even during his early childhood), it was common for troupes of actors to perform wherever they could - staging plays in halls, courts, courtyards, or any other available open spaces. However, in 1574, when Shakespeare was ten years old, the Common Council passed a law that required all plays and theaters in London to be licensed. In 1576, James Burbage, an actor and future Lord Chamberlain's Man, built the first permanent theater, called "The Theatre," outside London's city walls. After this, many more theaters were established, including the Globe Theatre, which was where most of Shakespeare's plays premiered.
Elizabethan theaters were generally modeled on the design of the original Theatre. These theaters were built of wood and comprised three tiers of seats in a circular shape around a stage area on one side of the circle. There was a roof over a section of the audience seating, but much of the main stage and the standing room in front of it were subject to the elements. About 1,500 audience members could pay extra money to sit in the covered seating areas, while about 800 "groundlings" paid less money to stand in the open area directly in front of the stage.
The stage itself was divided into three levels: a main stage area with doors at the rear and a curtained area in the back for "discovery scenes"; an upper, canopied area called "heaven", for balcony scenes; and an area under the stage called "hell," which could be accessed by a trap door in the stage. There were dressing rooms located behind the stage, but no curtain in the front of it, which meant that scenes had to flow into each other, and "dead bodies" had to be dragged off.
Performances took place during the day, and the open plan theater allowed for the use of natural light. Since there could be no dramatic lighting and there was very art direction (scenery and props), audiences relied on the actors' lines and stage directions to supply the time of day and year, as well as the weather, location, and mood of the scenes. Shakespeare developed creative and entertaining ways to supply this information. For example, in Hamlet, the audience learns within the first twenty lines of dialogue where the scene takes place ("Have you had quiet guard?"), what time of day it is ("'Tis now strook twelf"), what the weather is like ("'Tis bitter cold"), and what mood the characters are in ("and I am sick at heart").
One important difference between plays written in Shakespeare's time and those written today is that Elizabethan plays were published after their performances, sometimes even after their authors' deaths, and were in many ways a record of what happened on stage during these performances rather than directions for what should happen. Actors were allowed to suggest changes to scenes and dialogue, and had much more freedom with their parts than actors do today.
During Shakespeare's life, his plays were published in various forms, and with a wide range of accuracy. The discrepancies between different versions of his plays from one publication to the next make it difficult for editors to put together authoritative editions of his works. Plays could be published in large anthologies called Folios (the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays contains 36 plays), or in smaller Quartos. Folios were so named because of the way their paper was folded in half to make chunks of two pages each, which were sewn together to make a large volume. Quartos were smaller, cheaper books containing only one play. Their paper was folded twice, making four pages. In general, the First Folio have lasted better than the quartos. Therefore, plays that are printed in the First Folio are in better condition and therefore, much easier for editors to compile.
Although Shakespeare's language and classical references seem archaic to some modern readers, his audiences would have understood every word. Shakespeare's audience would have represented a variety of social classes, and appropriately, his plays appealed to all kinds of sensibilities - from his "highbrow" tales of kings and queens to the "lowbrow" blunderings of clowns and servants. Even his most tragic plays include clown characters for comic relief and to provide lucid commentary on the story. Audiences would have been familiar with his numerous references to classical mythology and literature, since these stories were staples of the Elizabethan knowledge base. While Shakespeare's plays appealed to all levels of society and included familiar story lines and themes, they also expanded his audiences' vocabularies. He coined many phrases and words that we use today, like "amazement," "in my mind's eye," and "the milk of human kindness". His plays contain a greater variety and number of words than almost any other body of work in the English language, showing that he a brilliant innovator, had a huge vocabulary, and was interested developing new phrases and words. While Shakespeare's theater work was entirely representative of his time, it has remained timeless because of his timeless stories and memorable characters.