‘Romeo and Juliet’: Three Themes

'Juliet,' by John William Waterhouse (1898)

*I*

The Forcefulness of Love

Though many people associate Romeo and Juliet with simple, happy love, in fact, the play gives us a much darker depiction of the emotion. Consider Lord Montague’s description of Romeo’s feelings about Rosaline at the beginning of the play: the young man’s unrequited love has left him incapable of even functioning in every day society:

Many a morning hath he there been seen,

With tears augmenting the fresh morning’s dew,

Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs.

[…]

Away from light steal home my heavy son

And private in his chamber pens himself,

Shuts up the windows, locks fair daylight out,

And makes himself an artificial night. (I.i.134-143)

Even when Romeo and Juliet find in each other a requited love, the emotion is still a dark, powerful force. Friar Lawrence, in fact, makes note of the young couple’s particularly powerful love just before he marries them:

These violent delights have violent ends

And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,

Which as they kiss, consume. (II.vi.9-11)

Juliet even goes so far as to mix love and death in her monologue as she waits for Romeo to come with the night:

Come, gentle night; come, loving black-browed night,

Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so dine

That all the world will be in love with night

And pay no worship to the garish sun. (III.ii.21-7)

The love in Romeo and Juliet, therefore, is more like a bossy, antagonistic character than a simple, happy emotion. It forces the main characters to act differently than they otherwise would, and it is the ultimate reason behind their suicides at the end of the play.

*II*

The Inevitability of Fate

Fate is first mentioned in Romeo and Juliet in the play’s prologue, when the Chorus notes that the two main characters are a pair of “star-crossed lovers” (Prologue.6). To Shakespeare’s audience, this meant that the fate of the young couple was sealed when they were born; they were destined to meet each other, fall passionately in love, but ultimately kill themselves as the result of some tragic circumstance. Shakespeare’s audience also knew that there was no avoiding this fate.

But Romeo and Juliet also have a clear understanding of fate: take, for instance, Romeo’s inexplicable fear just before going to the Capulet’s feast:

[M]y mind misgives

Some consequence yet hanging in the stars

Shall bitterly begin his fearful date

With this night’s revels, and expire the term

Of a despised life closed in my breast

By some vile forfeit of untimely death.

But he that hath the steerage of my course

Direct my sail. (I.iv.113-120)

Romeo’s fear is an omen—a symbol of fate—that fate will be set in motion at the party. This, of course, is true, for Romeo meets Juliet there, and this sets in motion the events that will ultimately lead to the young couple’s untimely deaths. But Romeo, understanding that fate is inevitable, simply shrugs his shoulders and calls for fate to run its course: “he that hath the steerage of my course / direct my sail.”

Also, Juliet’s discussion with Friar Lawrence in IV.i seems to hint at a coincidence, but Shakespeare’s audience knew that it is fate:

God joined my heart and Romeo’s, thou our hands;

And ere this hand, by thee to Romeo’s sealed,

Shall be the label to another deed,

Or my true heart with treacherous revolt

Turn to another, this shall slay them both. (IV.i.56-9)

It is not merely coincidental that Juliet says she will kill herself if she cannot be with Romeo; it is fate. Though the two main characters may try to rebel against fate (e.g., Romeo’s exclamation in V.i: “I defy you stars!”), their dooms have been sealed since birth; there is no avoiding the inevitable.

*III*

“Us” versus “Them”

The struggle between the desires of the individual and the laws of greater society is at the forefront of the play. First and foremost, there is the familial feud between the Capulets and Montagues, which the citizens of Verona are clearly at odds against (“Down with the Capulets! Down with the Montagues!” [I.i.75]). This feud is also more forcibly at odds with the laws of the Prince, who goes so far as to punish with death any Capulet or Montague responsible for further fighting in Verona.

But the idea of “us” versus “them” is much more focused in the depictions of Romeo and Juliet, who desperately love each other, though the laws of their families forbids it. Take, for instance, Juliet’s famous meditation on names:

What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other word would smell as sweet.

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,

And, for thy name, which is no part of thee,

Take all myself. (II.ii.43-52)

In this monologue, Juliet is openly calling for Romeo to defy the laws of his family in order to love her: thus emerges the conflict between the lovers and their families. Their individual desires are in direct conflict with the laws of their parents.

The clash between the young lovers and their parents is further emphasized in Capulet’s sudden turn on Juliet upon realizing her rejection of his arrangement of marriage between the girl and Paris. Though Capulet does not know the cause of Juliet’s outright rejection—which we, the audience, know to be her love for and marriage to Romeo—he is nevertheless at odds with her desires:

[T]o have a wretched puling fool,

A whining mammet, in her fortune’s tender,

To answer, “I’ll not wed. I cannot love.

I am too young. I pray you, pardon me.”

But, an you will not wed, I’ll pardon you!

Graze where you will, you shall not house with me. (III.v.195-200)

Indeed, by the end of the scene, it is clear that even the Nurse is at odds with Juliet’s desire to be with Romeo. Though the young couple’s fate my have been sealed when they were born, it is clear that the cause of their untimely deaths was the conflict between their desires and the laws of their families—a classic “us” versus “them” scenario.

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