Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare
Main Ideas

Themes

Main Ideas Themes

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Forcefulness of Love

Romeo and Juliet is the most famous love story in the English literary tradition. Love is naturally the play’s dominant and most important theme. The play focuses on romantic love, specifically the intense passion that springs up at first sight between Romeo and Juliet. In Romeo and Juliet, love is a violent, ecstatic, overpowering force that supersedes all other values, loyalties, and emotions. In the course of the play, the young lovers are driven to defy their entire social world: families (“Deny thy father and refuse thy name,” Juliet asks, “Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, / And I’ll no longer be a Capulet”); friends (Romeo abandons Mercutio and Benvolio after the feast in order to go to Juliet’s garden); and ruler (Romeo returns to Verona for Juliet’s sake after being exiled by the Prince on pain of death in 2.1.76–78).

Love is the overriding theme of the play, but a reader should always remember that Shakespeare is uninterested in portraying a prettied-up, dainty version of the emotion, the kind that bad poets write about, and whose bad poetry Romeo reads while pining for Rosaline. Love in Romeo and Juliet is a brutal, powerful emotion that captures individuals and catapults them against their world, and, at times, against themselves. The powerful nature of love can be seen in the way it is described, or, more accurately, the way descriptions of it so consistently fail to capture its entirety. At times love is described in the terms of religion, as in the fourteen lines when Romeo and Juliet first meet. At others, it is described as a sort of magic: “Alike bewitchèd by the charm of looks” (2.Prologue.6). Juliet, perhaps, most perfectly describes her love for Romeo by refusing to describe it: “But my true love is grown to such excess / I cannot sum up some of half my wealth” (3.1.33–34). Love, in other words, resists any single metaphor because it is too powerful to be so easily contained or understood. Romeo and Juliet does not make a specific moral statement about the relationships between love and society, religion, and family; rather, it portrays the chaos and passion of being in love, combining images of love, violence, death, religion, and family in an impressionistic rush leading to the play’s tragic conclusion.

Love as a Cause of Violence

The themes of death and violence permeate Romeo and Juliet, and they are always connected to passion, whether that passion is love or hate. The connection between hate, violence, and death seems obvious. But the connection between love and violence requires further investigation. Love, in Romeo and Juliet, is a grand passion, and as such, it is blinding; it can overwhelm a person as powerfully and completely as hate can. The passionate love between Romeo and Juliet is linked from the moment of its inception with death: Tybalt notices that Romeo has crashed the feast and determines to kill him just as Romeo catches sight of Juliet and falls instantly in love with her.

From that point on, love seems to push the lovers closer to love and violence, not farther from it. Romeo and Juliet are plagued with thoughts of suicide, and a willingness to experience it: in Act 3, scene 3, Romeo brandishes a knife in Friar Lawrence’s cell and threatens to kill himself after he has been banished from Verona and his love. Juliet also pulls a knife in order to take her own life in Friar Lawrence’s presence just three scenes later. After Capulet decides that Juliet will marry Paris, Juliet says, “If all else fail, myself have power to die” (3.5.242). Finally, each imagines that the other looks dead the morning after their first, and only, sexual experience (“Methinks I see thee,” Juliet says, “. . . as one dead in the bottom of a tomb” (3.5.55–56).

This theme continues until its inevitable conclusion: double suicide. This tragic choice is the highest, most potent expression of love that Romeo and Juliet can make. It is only through death that they can preserve their love, and their love is so profound that they are willing to end their lives in its defense. In the play, love emerges as an amoral thing, leading as much to destruction as to happiness. But in its extreme passion, the love that Romeo and Juliet experience also appears so exquisitely beautiful that few would want, or be able, to resist its power.

The Individual Versus Society

Much of Romeo and Juliet involves the lovers’ struggles against public and social institutions that either explicitly or implicitly oppose the existence of their love. Such structures range from the concrete to the abstract: families and the placement of familial power in the father; law and the desire for public order; religion; and the social importance placed on masculine honor. These institutions often come into conflict with each other. The importance of honor, for example, time and again results in brawls that disturb the public peace. Though they do not always work in concert, each of these societal institutions in some way present obstacles for Romeo and Juliet. The enmity between their families, coupled with the emphasis placed on loyalty and honor to kin, combine to create a profound conflict for Romeo and Juliet, who must rebel against their heritages.

Further, the patriarchal power structure inherent in Renaissance families, wherein the father controls the action of all other family members, particularly women, places Juliet in an extremely vulnerable position. Her heart, in her family’s mind, is not hers to give. The law and the emphasis on social civility demand terms of conduct with which the blind passion of love cannot comply. Religion similarly demands priorities that Romeo and Juliet cannot abide by because of the intensity of their love. Though in most situations the lovers uphold the traditions of Christianity (they wait to marry before consummating their love), their love is so powerful that they begin to think of each other in blasphemous terms. For example, Juliet calls Romeo “the god of my idolatry,” elevating Romeo to level of God (2.1.156). The couple’s final act of suicide is likewise un-Christian. The maintenance of masculine honor forces Romeo to commit actions he would prefer to avoid. But the social emphasis placed on masculine honor is so profound that Romeo cannot simply ignore them.

It is possible to see Romeo and Juliet as a battle between the responsibilities and actions demanded by social institutions and those demanded by the private desires of the individual. Romeo and Juliet’s appreciation of night, with its darkness and privacy, and the renunciation of their names, with its attendant loss of obligation, make sense in the context of individuals who wish to escape the public world. But the lovers cannot stop the night from becoming day. And Romeo cannot cease being a Montague simply because he wants to; the rest of the world will not let him. The lovers’ suicides can be understood as the ultimate night, the ultimate privacy.

The Inevitability of Fate

In its first address to the audience, the Chorus states that Romeo and Juliet are “star-crossed”—that is to say that fate (a power often vested in the movements of the stars) controls them (Prologue.6). This sense of fate permeates the play, and not just for the audience. The characters also are quite aware of it: Romeo and Juliet constantly see omens. When Romeo believes that Juliet is dead, he cries out, “Then I defy you, stars,” completing the idea that the love between Romeo and Juliet is in opposition to the decrees of destiny (5.1.24). Of course, Romeo’s defiance itself plays into the hands of fate, and his determination to spend eternity with Juliet results in their deaths.

The mechanism of fate works in all of the events surrounding the lovers: the feud between their families (it is worth noting that this hatred is never explained; rather, the reader must accept it as an undeniable aspect of the world of the play); the horrible series of accidents that ruin Friar Lawrence’s seemingly well-intentioned plans at the end of the play; and the tragic timing of Romeo’s suicide and Juliet’s awakening. These events are not mere coincidences, but rather manifestations of fate that help bring about the unavoidable outcome of the young lovers’ deaths.

The concept of fate described above is the most commonly accepted interpretation. There are other possible readings of fate in the play: as a force determined by the powerful social institutions that influence Romeo and Juliet’s choices, as well as fate as a force that emerges from Romeo and Juliet’s very personalities.

Love

Given that Romeo and Juliet represents one of the world’s most famous and enduring love stories, it seems obvious that the play should spotlight the theme of love. However, the play tends to focus more on the barriers that obstruct love than it does on love itself. Obviously, the Capulet and Montague families represent the lovers’ largest obstacle. But the lovers are also their own obstacles, in the sense that they have divergent understandings of love. Romeo, for instance, begins the play speaking of love in worn clichés that make his friends cringe. Although the language he uses with Juliet showcases a more mature and original verse, he retains a fundamentally abstract conception of love. Juliet, by contrast, tends to remain more firmly grounded in the practical matters related to love, such as marriage and sex. This contrast between the lovers appears clearly in the famous balcony scene. Whereas Romeo speaks of Juliet poetically, using an extended metaphor that likens her to the sun, Juliet laments the social constraints that prevent their marriage: “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo? / Deny thy father and refuse thy name” (II.ii.33–34).

Another obstacle in Romeo and Juliet is time—or, more precisely, timing. Everything related to love in this play moves too quickly. The theme of accelerated love first appears early in the play, regarding the question of whether Juliet is old enough for marriage. Whereas Lady Capulet contends that Juliet is of a “pretty age” and hence eligible for marriage, Lord Capulet maintains that it’s too soon for her to marry. When Lord Capulet changes his mind later in the play, he accelerates the timeline for Juliet’s marriage to Paris. Forced to act quickly in response, Juliet fakes her own death. Everything about Romeo and Juliet’s relationship is sped up as well. Not only do they fall in love at first sight, but they also get married the next day.

The lovers’ haste may raise questions about the legitimacy of their affection for one another. Do they truly love each other, or have they doomed themselves out of mere sexual desire? The theme of accelerated love returns at the play’s end, when Romeo arrives at Juliet’s tomb, believing himself to be too late. In fact, he arrives too early, just before Juliet wakes up. His bad timing results in both their deaths.

Sex

The themes of love and sex are closely linked in Romeo and Juliet, though the precise nature of their relationship remains in dispute throughout. For instance, in Act I Romeo talks about his frustrated love for Rosaline in poetic terms, as if love were primarily an abstraction. Yet he also implies that things didn’t work out with Rosaline because she preferred to remain a virgin:

She’ll not be hit
With Cupid’s arrow. She hath Dian’s wit,
And, in strong proof of chastity well armed,
From love’s weak, childish bow she lives uncharmed. (I.i.202–5)

Mercutio picks this thread back up in Act II, when he insists that Romeo has confused his love for Juliet with mere sexual desire: “this driveling love is like a great natural that runs / lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole” (II.iv.84–85). Mercutio’s words suggest a comparison between Romeo and either a court jester looking for a place to hide his staff or a mentally impaired person (i.e., a “natural”) seeking to hide a trinket. Yet Mercutio’s use of the phrases “lolling up and down” and “hide his bauble in a hole” also strongly imply sexual imagery (“bauble” and “hole” are slang for penis and vagina, respectively). Hence Mercutio’s words suggest a third comparison between Romeo and an idiot clumsily groping for a woman to have sex with. Whereas Mercutio cynically conflates love and sex, Juliet takes a more earnest and pious position. In Mercutio’s view, there is ultimately no such thing as love, since love is ultimately reducible to sexual desire.

Juliet, by contrast, implies that the concepts are distinct and that they exist in a hierarchical relationship, with love standing above sex. This view accords with Catholic doctrine, which privileges the spiritual union of marriage, but also indicates that this union must be legally consummated through sexual intercourse. The speech Juliet delivers in Act III, scene ii, nicely demonstrates her view of the proper relationship between love and sex:   

Oh, I have bought the mansion of a love
But not possessed it, and, though I am sold,
Not yet enjoyed. (III.ii.26–28)

Here the notions of purchase and possession designate love/marriage and sex, respectively. Through marriage, she has “bought” Romeo’s love (and likewise “sold” hers to him), but the moment of mutual possession has not yet taken place. Now that they’re married, however, Juliet clearly longs to “enjoy” the consummation. “Give me my Romeo,” she says: “And when I shall die, / Take him and cut him out in little stars” (III.ii.21–22). “Die” was Elizabethan slang for orgasm, and the image of Romeo “cut . . . out in little stars” subtly references the sexual ecstasy Juliet anticipates.

Violence

Due to the ongoing feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, violence permeates the world of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare demonstrates how intrinsic violence is to the play’s environment in the first scene. Sampson and Gregory open the play by making jokes about perpetrating violent acts against members of the Montague family. And when Lord Montague’s servant, Abram, appears, their first response is to prepare for a fight. Gregory instructs Sampson, “Draw thy tool!” (I.i.29), and Sampson does so immediately.

Tempers among the young men of Verona are clearly short, as further demonstrated when Tybalt spots Romeo at the Capulet ball and spoils for a fight. Lord Capulet succeeds in temporarily calming Tybalt, but the latter’s fury continues to smolder until the top of Act III, when he tries to provoke a duel with Romeo, fatally wounds Mercutio, and ends up slain by Romeo’s hand. Though tragic, this turn of events also seems inevitable. Given how the feud between the two families continuously fans the flames of hatred and thereby maintains a low-burning rage, such flaring outbursts of violence appear inescapable.

Violence in the play has a particularly significant relationship with sex. This is true in a general sense, in the way the feud casts a shadow of violence over Romeo and Juliet’s romance. But it also comes up in more localized examples. Sampson sets the stage for this link in the play’s opening scene, when he proclaims his desire to attack the Montague men and sexually assault the Montague women: “I will / push Montague’s men from the wall and thrust / his maids to the wall” (I.i.15–17). Sex and violence are also twinned in the events following Romeo and Juliet’s wedding. These events frame Act III, which opens with the scene in which Romeo ultimately slays Tybalt, and closes with the scene after Romeo stays the night with Juliet, possibly consummating their marriage. Even the language of sex in the play conjures violent imagery. When at the end of Act III Romeo declares, “Let me be put to death” (III.v.17), he’s referring to the real threat of being put to death by the Capulets if he’s found in Juliet’s room, but he’s also making a sexual pun, since “death” is slang for orgasm.

Youth

Romeo and Juliet are both very young, and Shakespeare uses the two lovers to spotlight the theme of youth in several ways. Romeo, for instance, is closely linked to the young men with whom he roves the streets of Verona. These young men are short-tempered and quick to violence, and their rivalries with opposing groups of young men indicate a phenomenon not unlike modern gang culture (though we should remember that Romeo and his friends are also the privileged elite of the city).

In addition to this association with gangs of youthful men, Shakespeare also depicts Romeo as somewhat immature. Romeo’s speech about Rosaline in the play’s first scene is full of clichéd phrases from love poetry, and Benvolio and Mercutio take turns poking fun at him for this. They also mock Romeo for being so hung up on one woman. Benvolio in particular implies that Romeo’s seriousness prevents him from acting his age. He’s still young, and he should therefore take his time and explore relations with other women: “Compare [Rosaline’s] face with some that I shall show, / And I will make thee think thy swan a crow” (I.ii.87–88).

Whereas we never learn Romeo’s precise age, we know that Juliet is thirteen. Her age comes up early in the play, during conversations about whether or not she’s too young to get married. Juliet’s mother insists that she’s reached “a pretty age” (I.iii.11), but her father describes her as “yet a stranger in the world” (I.ii.8) and hence not yet ready to marry. Although Juliet does not want to marry Paris, she certainly believes herself old enough for marriage. In fact, she yearns for marriage and for sexual experience, and she often uses explicitly erotic language that indicates a maturity beyond her actual years.

Yet in spite of this apparent maturity, Juliet also tacitly acknowledges her own youthfulness. When she looks forward to her wedding night, for example, she compares herself to “an impatient child” (III.ii.30), reminding the audience that in fact, this is what she is. Such acknowledgments of the lovers’ youth ultimately serve to amplify the tragedy of their premature death. Indeed, one of the saddest aspects of the play is that the lovers die so young, cutting their lives (and their relationship) so tragically short.

Fate

The theme of ill-fated love frames the story of Romeo and Juliet from the beginning. During the Prologue, before the play officially commences, the Chorus makes several allusions to fate, including the famous reference to Romeo and Juliet as a “pair of star-crossed lovers.” Shakespeare coined the term “star-crossed,” which means “not favored by the stars,” or “ill-fated.” Although the term may seem primarily metaphorical today, the science of astrology occupied a place of privilege in Renaissance society. Thus, the notion that one’s fate was written in the stars had a more immediate, literal meaning than it does today. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, then, their fates are cosmically misaligned.

Later in the Prologue, the Chorus reiterates the idea of fate in referring to Romeo and Juliet’s love as “death-marked,” which once again indicates that, from the very beginning, their desire for one another carries a sign or omen of inevitable death. Shakespeare’s use of the word “marked” here also suggests a physical inscription, alluding to the notion that their fate has been pre-written. It may seem counterintuitive for Shakespeare to open his play by spoiling its ending, but this choice about how to tell the story allows Shakespeare to incorporate the theme of predetermined fate into the play’s very structure. Uniting the theme of fate with the play’s structure in this way introduces a sense of dramatic irony, such that the audience will have more insight into the unfolding events than the characters. Watching the characters struggle against an invisible and unbeatable force such as fate heightens the sense of tension throughout the play.

This struggle also amplifies the sense of tragedy at the play’s conclusion. For instance, when Romeo cries out, “I defy you, stars!” (V.i.), the audience knows that his headstrong resistance is no match for fate, and acknowledging this impotence only makes Romeo’s agony that much more painful. In the end, then, mentioning Romeo and Juliet’s fate at the beginning of the play doesn’t spoil the ending. Instead, it locks the audience into a sense of tense anticipation of inescapable tragedy.