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 demands 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 their 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.
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.
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 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.