Romeo and Juliet contains several sonnets, a traditional form of poetry comprised of fourteen rhyming lines, usually about love. Shakespeare himself wrote sonnets, as did most of the major poets of his day. These English sonneteers were inspired by Italian writers, and above all by a poet known as Petrarch who wrote during the Italian Renaissance. Petrarch established that sonnets should be about romantic love that is also a pure and perfected spiritual love. His poems famously compared love to religious pilgrimage, as Romeo and Juliet do when they first meet. Petrarch also played with impossible contradictions, like Romeo’s “loving hate” (1.1.), to emphasize the philosophical complexity of love. Petrarch often made extreme and unlikely comparisons, and he liked to describe each part of his beloved’s body in isolation. Both these devices work to make love seem impossibly wonderful and pure. Romeo is imitating them when he describes Juliet’s eyes as “Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven” (2.2.).
Shakespeare uses the language of Petrarch’s sonnets to show Romeo’s growing maturity as a lover. When we first meet Romeo, he is trying to describe his love using unlikely comparisons, in the style of Petrarch: “Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs” (1.1.). He is doing a bad job. Lovers’ “sighs” feature often in Petrarch’s sonnets, and by Shakespeare’s day these sighs were a cliché. On top of that, comparing “smoke” with “sighs” isn’t very striking, because smoke and sighs are both intangible. When Romeo sees Juliet for the first time, however, he begins to make original and striking comparisons: “she hangs upon the cheek of night / As a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear” (1.5.). Nothing in this line is a cliché, and the comparison of Juliet to an earring is quite unlikely. Romeo has also punned on Juliet’s name, because “Jule,” pronounced “Jewel,” was a common short form of Juliet at the time. Petrarch frequently punned on the name of his beloved, Laura. Love has made Romeo a better poet, which helps us to believe that his love for Juliet is real.
Romeo and Juliet ultimately suggests that Petrarch’s vision of a pure and perfected love is both impossible and a bit silly. Mercutio parodies Romeo’s use of Petrarch’s style: “Romeo…Appear thou in likeness of a sigh” (2.1.). When the Nurse tells Juliet her impression of Romeo, she combines two typical features of Petrarch’s sonnets: impossible contradictions and a list of body parts. The resulting speech is comic nonsense: “Though his face be better than any man’s, yet his leg excels all men’s” (2.5.). Shakespeare directly parodied Petrarch’s idealized love poetry in his own sonnets. Sonnet 130 begins with the lines, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” poking fun at Petrarch’s tendency to compare all women’s eyes to the sun. The poem goes on to say that although the speaker’s mistress has “black wire” for hair, reeking breath, and a grating voice, he loves her more than any idealized woman unrealistically described in traditional love sonnets. Similarly, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo evolves from describing his idealized version of Rosaline, who he doesn’t even know, to using more specific, original language for Juliet, who he comes to know as a person, not an ideal.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare doesn’t just use sonnets to mock traditional love poetry. He also updates the form, by having the lovers share a sonnet when they first meet. Instead of Romeo delivering the fourteen lines of the poem himself, elaborately describing Juliet’s beauty while she listens, the lovers share the poem. Rather than being an object of adoration, Juliet is a co-creator of the sonnet and active participant in the relationship. As Romeo and Juliet progresses, the lovers gradually abandon the spiritual language of Petrarch and become more concerned with the practical business of being together in spite of the social forces keeping them apart. Petrarch never takes action either to consummate his relationship with his beloved or to end it. Instead, Petrarch imagines eventually meeting his beloved in heaven, when both of them will be beyond desire or action of any kind. Romeo and Juliet ultimately prefer actions to words: they rebel against the impossibility of being together by killing themselves.
Romeo and Juliet created a new form of love literature, which combined the spiritual longings of Petrarch’s sonnets with the belief that love and sex can be a force for rebellion and freedom. After Romeo and Juliet, love poetry often combined both these elements. John Donne created some of the most popular love poems in English by following this formula. His poem ‘To His Mistress Going To Bed’ is full of unlikely comparisons that express a spiritual longing, but it’s also explicitly sexual and in its own time it was shocking: ‘Licence my roving hands, and let them go, / Before, behind, between, above, below. / O my America! my new-found-land, / My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d.’ This formula for expressing romantic love is still going strong. For example, the Twilight series insists on both the spiritual and the rebellious force of young love. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Shakespeare invented young love as we know it.