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Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare

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Tone

Tone

The tone of Romeo and Juliet is sympathetic to the plight of the young lovers. The equal weight the play gives to sexual desire as everlasting love suggests a realistic, benevolent attitude towards their story. At the time the play was written, onstage kissing was rare and controversial, but Romeo and Juliet kiss often. Juliet’s sexual openness would have been especially shocking for contemporary audiences. She is only thirteen, but we hear her longing for her wedding night: “learn me how to lose a winning match / Played for a pair of stainless maidenhoods” (3.2.). Yet her character is presented sympathetically. The play’s tone suggests sex is a natural, inevitable part of life for characters regardless of age or gender. Mercutio indulges in sexual wordplay in virtually every one of his speeches. Nurse is sometimes not even aware of the secondary sexual meaning of her lines: “I’ll take him down, and ’a were lustier than he is” (2.4.). The tone of frank acceptance of the facts of life helps us to sympathize with the lovers, who are compelled to break important social rules by the force of their desire.

The play’s tone is not just non-judgemental about the characters’ sexual desires, but celebratory of the central love story between Romeo and Juliet. Although the characters may initially come across as frivolous, suggesting we should view their love with scepticism, the depth and validity of their passion is soon established. While Juliet worries about being perceived as “light,” or promiscuous, for falling in love with Romeo so quickly, the tone of the play suggests Romeo and Juliet’s love is serious, and they are both admirable characters. Tragedies traditionally feature noble figures such as kings or generals, yet Shakespeare chose two ordinary teens for the play, suggesting their story is as worthy and important as that of more celebrated individuals. Romeo’s friends and Juliet’s family value the characters, furthering the sense of them as worthy of our respect. And the intensely poetic language of the balcony scene and other love scenes elevate imply that the lovers’ plight is of lasting import and should be taken seriously.

While sex and love are presented as positive, natural forces in Romeo and Juliet, the play’s tone is highly critical of the violence that destroys the characters’ love. Violence, not sex, leads to the play’s tragic end. The play begins with Samson boasting that he is violent when his feelings are aroused: “I strike quickly being moved” (1.1.). Moments later the play’s first duel breaks out. Duelling is the main form of violence in Romeo and Juliet: Mercutio, Tybalt and Paris will all die in duels. These duels stem from the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. We see that the price of the violent disagreement between the two families is needless death that causes great pain and suffering in the community. The play shows us the grief that follows violence and death, and the tremendous remorse the characters feel at the loss of life. While the play ends with the suggestion that the violence and death has been useful in resolving the feud between the two families, the price of this resolution is extremely high: the peace is “glooming;” “the sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.” (5.3.) The elegiac tone of the ending of the play suggests the pain of violence outweighs any potential benefits.

The tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet... told in text messages

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