In Renaissance-era Verona, Italy, two noble families, the Montagues and Capulets, are locked in a bitter and ancient feud whose origin no one alive can recall. After a series of public brawls between both the nobles and the servants of the two families, which shed blood and disturb the peace in Verona’s city streets, Prince Escalus, the ruler of Verona, declares that anyone in either family involved in any future fighting will be put to death.
Every year, the Capulets throw a masquerade ball. The Montagues are, of course, not invited. As Capulet and Lady Capulet fuss over the arrangements for the party, ensuring that everything is perfect for their friends and guests, they hope that their daughter Juliet will fall in love with the handsome count Paris at the ball. At 13, Juliet is nearly of marriageable age, and the Capulets believe that marrying Paris would allow their daughter to ascend the social ladder in Verona. During the party, two Montagues, 16-year-old Romeo and his cousin Benvolio, along with their bawdy, quick-tongued friend Mercutio, a kinsmen of Prince Escalus, crash the affair. Romeo attends the party reluctantly, and only because he is hoping to see Rosaline, a young woman he has been hopelessly in love with—and unsuccessfully pursuing—for quite some time. His lack of romantic success has made him noticeably forlorn as of late, much to the chagrin of his friends, who nonetheless poke fun at their lovesick friend’s melodramatic state. Tybalt, a hot-blooded member of House Capulet, notices the intrusion of the Montagues and recognizes them in spite of their masks—but when he draws his rapier and begins approaching them to provoke a fight, Capulet urges Tybalt not to embarrass their family.
When the masked Romeo spots Juliet from across the room, he instantly falls in love with her. Juliet is equally smitten. The two of them speak, exchanging suggestive jokes, and then kiss. As the party ends, Romeo and Juliet, pulled away from one another to attend to their friends and family, separately discover who the other truly is. Both are distraught—Juliet laments that her “only love [has] sprung from [her] only hate.” As the party winds down and Romeo’s friends prepare to leave, Romeo breaks off from them, jumps an orchard wall, and hides in the dark beneath Juliet’s bedroom window. She emerges onto her balcony and bemoans her forbidden love for Romeo, wishing aloud that he could “be some other name.” Romeo jumps out from his hiding place and tells Juliet that he’d do anything for her—he is determined to be with her in spite of the obstacles they face. Romeo and Juliet exchange vows of love, and Romeo promises to call upon Juliet tomorrow so they can hastily be married.
The next day, Romeo visits a kindly but philosophical friar, Friar Laurence, in his chambers. He begs Friar Laurence to marry him to his new love, Juliet. Friar Laurence urges Romeo to slow down and take his time when it comes to love: “these violent delights,” he predicts, “have violent ends.” But Romeo insists he and Juliet know what they’re doing. Friar Laurence comes around, realizing that a marriage between Romeo and Juliet could end their parents’ age-old feud. Later that day, Benvolio and Mercutio encounter Tybalt, who is furious that the Montagues crashed the Capulet party. Tybalt has, in a letter, challenged Romeo to a duel, and Mercutio and Benvolio are worried about the impulsive Romeo rising to the skilled Tybalt’s challenge. When Romeo shows up to find Tybalt, Benvolio, and Mercutio exchanging verbal barbs and teetering on the edge of a fight, Romeo does all he can to resist dueling with Tybalt. He and Juliet have just hastily visited Friar Laurence’s chambers together and are now married. Romeo doesn’t want to fight Tybalt, who is now technically his kinsman—but he knows he can’t reveal the truth to Tybalt, either. Before Romeo can explain his reasons for hesitating, Mercutio disgustedly steps in and challenges Tybalt to a duel himself. Romeo tries to separate them, but Tybalt stabs and kills Mercutio under Romeo's arm. Mercutio dies from his wounds, cursing both the Montagues and the Capulets and invoking “a plague [on] both houses.” In a miserable, mournful rage, Romeo kills Tybalt, then declares himself “fortune’s fool.” Benvolio urges him to hurry from the square. The prince and the citizens’ watch arrive, along with the elders of House Capulet and House Montague. Benvolio tells Prince Escalus what has unfolded, and the prince decides to banish Romeo to Mantua rather than sentence him to death.
Back at the Capulet manse, Juliet dreamily awaits the arrival of Romeo, whom she believes is hurrying from church so that they can spend their wedding night together. Juliet’s reveries are shattered with her nurse enters and informs her that Romeo has slain Tybalt and been banished from Verona. Juliet is furious with Romeo for killing Tybalt, but at the same time, her love for him is so profound that she admits she’d rather he lived than Tybalt. Juliet bids her nurse to go find Romeo and bring him to her, letting him know that she still wants to see him in spite of his actions. The nurse heads to Friar Laurence’s chambers, where the miserable, embarrassed, and angry Romeo is hiding. Though Romeo laments his fate to Friar Laurence, the friar urges Romeo to see that he is lucky to be alive, and promises to find a way to bring him back to Verona from exile in Mantua soon enough. The nurse arrives and summons Romeo to Juliet’s chambers—he happily follows her, and Friar Laurence urges Romeo to head straight to Mantua in the morning and await word from a messenger.
The death of Tybalt affects Capulet deeply. He decides to marry Juliet to Paris immediately, to cheer both Juliet and himself up. Juliet and Romeo bid each another farewell as the dawn breaks the next morning, and though Juliet says she has a terrible feeling she’ll never see Romeo again, she urges him to hurry on to Mantua. Lady Capulet enters Juliet’s chambers just after Romeo leaves to find her daughter weeping. Believing Juliet is still sad over Tybalt’s death, Lady Capulet delivers the news that Juliet will soon be married to Paris. Juliet refuses, and Lady Capulet urges Juliet to tell her father of her decision. Capulet enters, and, when Juliet stubbornly and angrily refutes the arrangement he’s made for her, Capulet threatens to disown her. Lady Capulet sides with her husband, and even the nurse advises Juliet to marry Paris and forget Romeo.
Juliet rushes to Friar Laurence in a rage, threatening to kill herself if he cannot devise a plan to get her out of the marriage to Paris. Friar Laurence, sensing Juliet’s deep pain, quickly comes up with a scheme: he gives her a vial of potion that, once drunk, will make it seem like she's dead—but will really only put her to sleep for about 40 hours. Juliet will be laid to rest in the Capulet tomb, and once she wakes up there, Friar Laurence will collect her and hide her until Romeo returns from Mantua. The friar promises to get news of the plan to Romeo so that he can hurry back home. Juliet takes the vial and returns home with it. Though she is afraid the potion might either kill her or not work at all, Juliet drinks it and immediately falls unconscious. The next morning the Capulet household wakes to discover that Juliet has seemingly died. As Capulet and Lady Capulet dramatically mourn their daughter’s loss, Friar Laurence chides them for their tears—in life, he says, they sought Juliet’s social “promotion.” Now that she is in heaven, she has received the highest promotion of all.
In Mantua, Romeo’s servant Balthasar approaches and tells him that Juliet has died. Romeo is devastated—he plans to “deny [the] stars” and return to Verona. Before leaving Mantua, however, he visits the shop of a local apothecary who sells forbidden poisons. If Juliet really is dead, Romeo plans to drink the vial of poison and kill himself inside her tomb. Back in Verona, Friar Laurence learns that his brother in the cloth, Friar John, has failed to deliver the letter about Juliet’s feigned “death” to Romeo—Romeo has no idea that Juliet is really alive. Friar Laurence hurries to the Capulet crypt to try to head off any calamity. At the gravesite, however, trouble is brewing: Paris has arrived with his page, intending to scatter flowers around Juliet’s tomb. Romeo and Balthasar approach, and Paris hides to see who has come to the crypt. Romeo takes up some tools and begins to break open the Capulet tomb. The astonished, offended Paris steps forward to stop him. The two duel, and Romeo kills Paris. Romeo succeeds in opening Juliet’s tomb, and brings Paris’s corpse down into it with him.
As Romeo looks upon Juliet, he notes that her cheeks and lips still seem flushed with blood—but, believing she is dead, resolves to drink the poison after a final kiss. Romeo drinks the vial and dies. Friar Laurence arrives to find a terrible scene before him. Juliet wakes, and Friar Laurence urges her to follow him without looking at the bodies. As sounds of the citizens’ watch approach, however, Friar Laurence flees, begging Juliet to follow him so he can install her in a nunnery. Instead, Juliet stays behind with Romeo’s corpse. Seeing the poison in his hand, she tries to drink a drop from his lips, but Romeo has left none for her. Instead, she pulls Romeo’s dagger from his hip and uses it to kill herself. Several watchmen arrive and bring Friar Laurence, Balthasar, Prince Escalus, and Paris’s page to the crypt to investigate what has happened. As the truth unravels, the elders of House Montague and Capulet arrive. Prince Escalus tells them that their hatred has killed their children. “All,” the prince says, “are punished.” The Capulets and Montagues agree to end their feud and erect statues of each other’s children in the town square.