The Shakespeare Unit

Categories: Shakespeare

Examine the different views of love presented in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, discussing the dramatic reasons for their inclusion

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet entire play is structured on love and hate. These are binary opposites, and contrast with each other, making love appear even more beautiful and tragic when contrasted with hate. Hate is shown via the “ancient grudge” which breaks “to new mutiny”, the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. The other main theme, perhaps intertwining love and hate together, is fate.

This is shown in the Prologue, with the phrase “star-crossed lovers”, implying something predestined for Romeo and Juliet. To illuminate the aspect of fate further, in the Prologue, it should be noted that the language has been set out so love and hate are balanced perfectly; there are exactly the same number of lines talking of love as there are of hate. Fate is shown even more noticeably by revealing the result of the play before it has even started, giving the impression that the characters’ fates have already been decided.

There are numerous types of love shown throughout Romeo and Juliet, all designed to contrast with each other: ‘fashionable’ love, romantic and unromantic love, spiritual love, sexual love, passionate love and moderate love. Each character has his or her own view of love, which is similar to a mirror so that one can look at other views of love shown by other characters. Not only this, but the types of love are juxtaposed and held in tension until the end of the play, so we can make a decision for ourselves as to which love we believe is true.

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We can then answer Shakespeare is posing for us – what the power of love is, and what its real value is.

The first type of love is Romeo’s ‘fashionable’ love for Rosaline. This love is not a true, romantic view of love, but more of an artificial ‘love of love’. It is a heavily exaggerated, elaborate view of love which follows the Elizabethan fashions and conventions of the time. With fashionable love it was common for the man to idolise the lady from afar, talking in intricate terms and expressing his emotions in complex, contrived images. It was also common for lovers to become ‘lovesick’, physically ill and heartbroken.

This love is shown in a number of ways. Before Romeo has entered the stage, Benvolio talks of him having a “troubled mind” and Montague says he has been seen “with tears augmenting the fresh morning’s dew”. The imagery of light and dark begins in this first scene, with Romeo being said to have closed “his windows, locks fair daylight out, And makes himself an artificial night”. This is the first real clue of Romeo’s artificial behaviour, almost as if true love has been locked out with the daylight, leaving only a false, empty love remaining. It also contrasts with the heavenly imagery used often when Romeo and Juliet are talking of each other. When Romeo finally appears, he is dull and melancholy, talking of the day “being so young”, that the hours are dragging on. As he speaks he slowly unwinds the tale of his sorrow, piece by piece to Benvolio, in such a way that seems contrived and artificial. His artificial behaviour continues as he speaks in oxymorons and paradoxes: “o brawling love, o loving hate”, “o heavy lightness, serious vanity, Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms” and most effectively “Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health”. This composed speech continues for some time, with Romeo using rhyming couplets and melodramatic phrases, as was the fashion at the time.

Rhyming couplets such as “A madness most discreet, A choking gall, and a preserving sweet” give us the impression that Romeo is not only enjoying himself at his hyperbole, but he has also been thinking about what to say beforehand, making him sound even more contrived. It is also worth noticing that most the descriptions he gives are describing love itself rather than Rosaline, which backs up the ‘love of love’ idea. Benvolio sees this straight away, and uses sarcastic phrases such as “No coz, I rather weep”, to mock Romeo’s self-indulgent attitude, but at the same time plays along a little with Romeo’s ‘game’. He tries to make Romeo forget about Rosaline, and pledges his life to find Romeo another “beauty”. He tries to make Romeo understand Rosaline is not goddess-like as Romeo is making out, but just a woman. Benvolio is not the only one who notices Romeo’s false love. Mercutio mocks him in a rather crude fashion, accusing Romeo of simple lust for Rosaline: a more crude, physical love. This is shown as he talks of “Queen Mab” being with Romeo, and goes into a long speech full of puns and bawdy comments. Later, in Act 2 Scene 1, Mercutio tries to “conjure” Romeo by talking of Rosaline’s physical features, and later “raise a spirit in his mistresses’ circle”. These crude comments only serve to mock Romeo and his fashionable love.

The purpose of this fashionable love is to draw a contrast between the contrived metaphors and phrases that Romeo uses to describe Rosaline, against the real, spiritual, pure love between Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo’s elaborate manner disappears, and he recognises “I ne’er saw true beauty till this night”. It is interesting that while Romeo is lovesick due to Rosaline he feels depressed and melancholy, but when he meets Juliet he becomes far more jubilant. This further contrasts artificial love with pure love.

When Romeo meets Juliet in the Capulets’ house, the form of love is completely different; a change occurs in his language and behaviour. His language becomes simpler and at the same time more tender, as is shown when he sees Juliet for the first time, describing her to “enrich the hand” if another person. Instead of describing love as he had done with his unrequited love for Rosaline, he talks about Juliet herself. The descriptions are generally based round the heavens and light, with phrases such as “she doth teach the torches to burn bright”. It is at this point he ‘matures’ from a childish, inexperienced, fashionable love to a very real, romantic love for Juliet. This is shown by the way the shallow expressions of Rosaline turn to deeper, more heartfelt feelings for Juliet, shown with lines such as “rich jewel” and “make blessed my rude hand”. Images such as these suggest the pure, chaste, innocent character of Juliet, which is shown more prominently later.

The Sonnet that Romeo and Juliet share in Act 1 Scene 5 is an important event not only because it separates them from the feud physically and emotionally, but also emphasises the special love that they have for each other. The entire Sonnet is based on the extended metaphor of religion, Romeo being likened to a pilgrim on a quest for a shrine or holy saint. This not only shows how pure and honest their love is, but also the devotion Romeo has for Juliet. This is shown later in the sonnet with the image of him trying to “pray” to her, or in real terms, trying to kiss her. After kissing, the formality and dignity of the event is reinforced with Juliet saying “You kiss by th’ book”.

In the Balcony scene, Romeo and Juliet express their love for each other and effectively are bonded as if married by pledging their loyalty to each other. At the beginning of the scene occur bawdy comments by Mercutio, which Romeo dismisses as infantile and immature. The dramatic function of this is to contrast the vulgarity of Mercutio and his simple, lustful, physical view of love against Romeo and Juliet’s emotional and spiritual love for each other. The atmosphere of the scene is set to mirror the characters on a balcony, and is generally regarded as the most harmonious scene in the book. Although Romeo seems a little carried away with more elaborate phrases, such as swearing by “yonder blessed moon”.

These are not contrived images as those of Rosaline. Romeo is merely trying to express his devoted love. The image of heavenly light is extended further in this scene, with Romeo saying that Juliet is a “bright angel” and “she is the sun” which suggest power, a life giving force, and also hints that Romeo believes he is unworthy for her. When exchanging vows, Romeo is almost overwhelmed by the situation. He is prepared to give up his name and family, and even “tear the word” if he could. Finally he pledges his life to Juliet, showing how true this love is in comparison to his unrequited love for Rosaline. When she leaves, he asks “willst thou leave me so unsatisfied?” He wants to exchange vows of love, which shows the extent of his loyalty at this stage.

When Romeo finds out that he is banished, the extent of his love is shown truly for the first time: “Be merciful, say ‘death'” and that “death is kinder than banishment”. By saying this, he means that life without Juliet is empty, torturous and essentially hell. Even after the Friar’s sharp scolding, Romeo explains his plight by saying that flies, rats and other “unworthy” creature can look upon Juliet while he cannot. While many see this as hasty and showing a lack of forethought, especially when Romeo offers to kill himself it reveals the irreversible nature of his love, and the fact that he would rather die than be without Juliet. This contrasts with his love for Rosaline, where he seems to his friends to be in a permanent “purgatory” even though he can see her and look at her. It is through his love for Juliet that he is reduced to tears, at which Friar Lawrence calls him “womanish”. Once Friar Lawrence reminds Romeo that there is still a change he may see Juliet, his mood changes completely; he becomes much happier and no longer cries like a child. All this reflects the deep, passionate and loyal love he has for Juliet.

Nearer the beginning of the play, Juliet, who is not yet awakened to any of the forms of love, being only thirteen, responds casually about love and marriage that it is something that she dreams “not of” and says that she will “look to like, if looking liking move”. She will look at Paris at the party, and if she does like him, she will not involve herself beyond the stage of liking to which her parents have given consent.

In stark contrast, only a few scenes later, Juliet encounters her romantic awakening to love with Romeo at the party. The Sonnet, where she first talks to Romeo, shows the first bond of irreversible love between them, and effectively encourages Romeo to kiss her when she says “Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake”. Dramatic irony is shown when she falls for Romeo without even knowing his name and does recognise this as a prodigious birth of love which is ‘unnatural’. This is further shown when she exclaims, “My only love sprung from my only hate!” which creates a sense of foreboding. Her absolute love for Romeo is emphasised further when she calls into question the value of a name to denote being, and delves into complex philosophical reasoning, talking of how “That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet” and that she would cast off her identity if she could be with Romeo. When Romeo emerges after hearing this, we see no difference in her behaviour; this shows that has no fracturing between her public and private image, therefore showing that what she is saying is true, and emphasises the honesty of her character.

The fashion at the time was for women to play ‘hard to get’ and to show their love only after the man had completed a quest or some great feat. However, Juliet shows her love from the beginning of the scene, only asking for Romeo’s love in return. This shows how down to earth her view of love is, and also how honest she is. She effectively rejects traditional Elizabethan courtship methods, and is very direct with her courtship. On the balcony, when Romeo offers to swear on “yonder moon”, and continues to try and talk elaborately to impress Juliet, she scolds him as she merely wants a direct exchange of vows. Her practicality is shown in this scene, as she organises the marriage in only a few moments, telling Romeo to meet at “the hour of nine”. This shows not only her strength and ability to take control, but also the fact that she is so sure she will cherish Romeo forever and is very practical in wanting to secure their love with a stronger bond than mere emotion.

Later, when Romeo is banished from Verona, Juliet becomes increasingly distraught. She uses oxymorons such as “Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical” and “dove-feathered raven, wolvish ravening lamb” to show the inner turmoil in her mind. However, she soon rationalises the situation, and degrades herself for saying such things about her husband: “O what a beast was I to chide at him”. She is torn between her family and her husband here, but manages to conclude that if Romeo had not killed Tybalt “That villain cousin would have killed my husband”. She also says that everyone should die if Romeo is banished, and the true turmoil of her mind is shown as she talks of herself in the third person, something which indicates that a character is in extreme distress.

Actions are complicated further as Juliet is told she must marry Paris, and her father, in a rage, tells that she must either marry Paris or “never after look me in the face”. Juliet is still strong willed and disobedient, despite previously being completely willing to do whatever her parents tell her. This change of character, from casual to assertive, is used by Shakespeare dramatically to show what the power of love can do. This makes us understand why Juliet has changed so rapidly; so many events have taken place in such a short space of time, a person as young and vulnerable as Juliet has not really been able to cope with it. When she wakes from her sleep at the end of the play, and finds Romeo dead next to her, for her this is the final straw in her mind, and can only resolve the issue by committing suicide.

The love scenes with Romeo and Juliet are generally separated from the rest of the play for a number of reasons. Love is shown to be stronger than hate, and this is reflected in the pure love of Romeo and Juliet which is elevated above the context of the feud. This occurs in the Sonnet when they first meet, as they are separated completely from their surroundings. The balcony scene later is also separated from the rest of the play physically, with Romeo and Juliet being on their own. This shows their love not only to be pure but also eternal and timeless.

The dramatic function of this type of love is to allow the audience to appreciate the totality of their love, and see its strength and honesty in comparison to other forms of love. The audience see the tests that love is put and how it can cause people to act without forethought, without thinking of the consequences. This is the primary reason for the tragedy in the play, as the love was so strong that Romeo, Juliet and Friar Lawrence were forced to behave hastily with scant regard to the longevity of love.

In contrast to this pure love is the view of love shown by Lord and Lady Capulet. They are portrayed to have an unromantic view of love, one that is based more on financial and hierarchical benefits than emotional ones. This is first shown with her cold and clinical question, “How stands your dispositions to be married” in Act 1 Scene 3. It can be seen that this attitude may have been brought about from her own lack of affection for her own husband; as it is known Lady Capulet was married to Lord Capulet at a young age, and as a marriage of convenience. Lady Capulet talks of how she “shall all that he doth posses, By having him, making yourself no less”. Her view of love is very mercenary, and is not for Juliet’s gain, but essentially for her own. When Juliet has no one left to turn to after declining Paris’s proposal, Lady Capulet fails to understand why, as her beliefs are based upon wealthy and social position. Consequently she does not stand up for her daughter or even comfort her, saying that “I have done with thee”.

When Juliet refuses Paris’s proposal, Capulet’s mood turns completely, he becomes enraged and shouts derogatory terms such as “tallow face” and “green-sickness carrion”. Physical violence is also used, confirming the extent of his anger. This backs up the view of him as a man with little control, but also how important the marriage is for him; not only does he believe resolutely in arranged marriages, but also the fact that he sees Juliet as a piece of property which he owns, and can sell as he pleases. This old fashioned view of love, partially brought on by age and his marriage, brings about further contrast with old versus young and unromantic versus romantic in this scene. In Act 3 Scene 5 he continuously builds up a picture of a perfect husband which Juliet, a “whining mammet” has rejected for no apparent reason. The fact that Capulet is arranging the marriage for his own good is backed up further later on in the book, in Act 4 Scene 2, where Capulet says “Why I am glad on’t” rather than how glad he is for her, showing how much of this is for his own personal gain.

The dramatic function of this view of love is to directly contrast this ‘convenient’, unromantic love with Romeo and Juliet’s emotional, romantic view of love. It also contrasts it in other ways, with Lord and Lady Capulet being old while Romeo and Juliet being young, for example, bringing together two binary opposites for further contrast and essentially, to show how their unromantic love is a foil to romantic love.

Another view of love, shared this time by Mercutio and the Nurse, is a sexual, lustful, physical view of love. This is shown first near the beginning of the play with the Nurse, whose speeches are full of bawdy punning and comments. She talks of how Juliet, when young, fell forwards, and how her husband, comments on how she will learn to fall backwards in a sexual manner. Other trivial phrases and puns, such as “lady-bird”, “women grow by men” and “seek happy days to happy nights” are littered constantly throughout her speeches, showing her heavy preoccupation with sex. Her fickle attitude is shown throughout the book, as she is constantly advising Juliet to continue her relationships with different people. This is shown most obviously when she tells Juliet to forget about Romeo, whom she had previous advised Juliet to stay with, and marry Paris as he is “a lovely gentlemen”. This shows that she does not really have much regard for loyalty or emotional love, and much like Lord and Lady Capulet, sees love as a matter of convenience.

Mercutio has similar views to the Nurse, but with more cynical, harsh overtones. He mocks Romeo’s feelings, calling him with words such as “Madman! Passion! Lover!” to trivialise his love for her. He uses constant punning and witty phrases when talking with Romeo, and believes Romeo’s love for Rosaline is pure lust. Incidentally, he never finds about his true love for Juliet. When describing Rosaline, only her physical and sexual attributes are described, talking of her “quivering thigh”, “scarlet lip” and “high forehead”. Incredibly crude language is used in this passage, talking of “raising a spirit” into Rosaline’s “circle…Till she had laid it”. Later on in the book, when he has a verbal ‘joust’ with Romeo, he talks of a “wild goose-chase” and “sharp source”. All these comments reflect his infatuation with sex, and his continued references to prostitution shows that he has little respect for women, and uses them only for gratification. When Mercutio and the Nurse meet in the book, Mercutio insults her heavily, talking of the “bawdy hand” striking “the prick of noon”, and leaves her saying “Farewell ancient lady”. This further emphasises Mercutio’s lack of respect for women and the way he objectifies them.

The Nurse’s and Mercutio’s view of love provides a stark contrast between their down-to-earth, physical view of love with Romeo and Juliet’s idealistic, emotional love.

Just as the Nurse was Juliet’s confidante, Romeo confides in Friar Lawrence in the play. His ‘moderate’ view of love is shown in Act 2 Scene 6, where he tries to convince the couple that “these violent delights have violent ends” and therefore it would be best for the two of them that they should “love moderately”. It should be noted that by nature Friar Lawrence is not a hasty man, thinking out his every move carefully and slowly, in stark contrast to the brash actions of Romeo in Juliet, who are ‘violently’ in love.

The dramatic function of this form of love is essentially to prepare the audience for the grim, ultimately very fast deaths of the “star-crossed lovers” and create a sense of foreboding. The reminds the audience of the pitfalls of hasty, passionate love, in contrast to his paced, moderate and careful attitude to life in general.

Shakespeare has carefully structured the ending of the play to try and show that in the end, love will triumph over hate. This is shown not only in Friar Lawrence’s speculation that the marriage may “turn your households’ rancour to pure love” but at the end of the book when both lovers are dead, and the families see that Romeo and Juliet were “poor sacrifices to our enmity”. All the attempts of the Prince with his threats and the Church’s power could not reconcile the Capulets and Montagues, while the pure love of Romeo and Juliet did. This leaves a sense of “glooming peace” as the two families make a truce. The message Shakespeare is portrays is that love will always triumph over hate, even in the most dire circumstances.

The inclusion of a positive ending is essential. All tragic plays end with some form of compromise between good and evil, for example in Macbeth, where peace is restored to the country after all the horrific murders have taken place. If the play had ended with only Romeo and Juliet’s deaths, the message would be that love died at the hands of hate, and all is futile. However, Shakespeare shows that not all is lost and the final feeling the audience is left with is that love is more powerful then hate, and the special qualities it possesses helps it overcome adversity even among “a deluge of hate”.

In conclusion, it can be seen that Romeo and Juliet follows the generic structure of Tragedies. As although the play ends with characters falling from grace, their loss goes beyond tragedy, and helps the audience see what could have been done to stop it occurring. Just as the Capulets and Montagues learn from their experiences and reconcile, Shakespeare hopes that the readers can learn from what has happened and use it in everyday situations.

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The Shakespeare Unit. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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