what Romeo and Juliet shows us about love

What ‘Romeo and Juliet’ shows us about love

Most people, lit and non-lit lovers alike, would have heard of Romeo and Juliet. 

Even if you’ve never actually read (or watched) the play, you’d probably know it as a cultural shorthand for romance.

And even if you don’t agree with the portrayal of love in the play, you’re likely to understand why its appeal is so timeless and universal; it elevates very basic, and rather pedestrian, human instincts – those of love and hate. 

romeo and juliet GIF

I’ve always thought of this play as that embarrassing chick flick one would watch over and over again as a teenager, but never admit to having done so in front of family or friends.

To put it in a mixed metaphor, Romeo and Juliet is guilty pleasure in a fondue, with way too much cheese for sophisticated comfort. 

 

The popularity of Romeo and Juliet 

What I find curious, though, is just how popular Romeo and Juliet seems to be among high school English curricula.

The University of Oxford has even developed an interactive learning tool for students to learn more about the play via texting, which you can check out here. It’s lots of fun. 

messaging with Shakespeare will play Oxford tool

Screen Shot 2020-08-22 at 5.00.24 PM
An interactive learning tool developed by Oxford University for students to learn about Romeo and Juliet via texting

Virtually every GCSE exam board designates it as a set text, and most teachers tend to use it as an ‘entry’ or ‘taster’ text for classes on Shakespeare or drama.

It’s a good thing, of course (as is anything related to reading Shakespeare), but I wonder if educators aren’t concerned about (or aware of!) the rather adult nature in some of the play’s dialogue. 

That said, as I argue in my post on Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, shielding students from ‘sensitive’ topics can be a slippery slope to intellectual stultification.

So, yes, salacious chat and genitalia references aside, it is by and large a boon for 13+ students to read Romeo and Juliet

Happy Shirley Temple GIF

One of the most commonly asked questions about this play is ‘how Shakespeare presents the nature of love’.

Personally, I find this to be a rather loaded question for young adults, and one which I suspect many full-fledged adults themselves can’t really answer.

Then again, Juliet is supposedly only 14 years old in the play, and she’s arguably one of Love’s best known cultural martyrs, so go figure. 

romeo and juliet love GIF

On the presentation of love in Romeo and Juliet

In Romeo and Juliet, love is often expressed in merisms – its emotions are either high or low, its experiences ‘live or die’, its energies either too much or too little spent.

Love, in this play, is never moderate – only ever extreme. It is perhaps important, then, that we not view Romeo and Juliet as a manual for love, but instead, a dramatisation of romance.

To understand how Shakespeare portrays love in this play, let’s close read three key scenes: 

  • Act 1 Scene 1: The paradox of love – “O loving hate!”  

  • Act 2 Scene 6: The need for restraint in love – “Love moderately; long love doth so” 

  • Act 3 Scene 2: The willingness to be ‘blind’ in love – “If love be blind, it best agrees with night” 

Act 1 Scene 1: The paradox of love – “O loving hate!” 

RJ cover_1

The cynical ones among us would have noticed the incredible speed with which Romeo falls in and out of love. 

Before he meets Juliet at the Capulet ball in Act 1 Scene 5, Romeo is in absolute agony over Rosaline’s indifference towards his affections.

When quizzed by his cousin Benvolio about why he’s looking so morose, Romeo launches into an apostrophic tirade against the paradoxical, and as such, puzzling, nature of love – 

BENVOLIO

In love?

ROMEO

Out–

BENVOLIO

Of love?

ROMEO

Out of her favour, where I am in love.

BENVOLIO

Alas, that love, so gentle in his view,
Should be so tyrannous and rough in proof!

ROMEO

Alas, that love, whose view is muffled still,
Should, without eyes, see pathways to his will!
Where shall we dine? O me! What fray was here?
Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.
Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire,
sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Dost thou not laugh?

BENVOLIO

No, coz, I rather weep.

(1.1) 

The apostrophic string of ‘O’s (“O me!”, “O brawling love!”, “O loving hate!”, “O any thing”) sets the melodramatic cadence for this scene.

Clearly, our boy Romeo is in emotional pain, and he wants to moan. O, what a bundle of paradoxes love is, cries our protagonist. Although personified as blind and “without eyes”, love can nonetheless “see” enough, bend us to its will, and get us falling for someone – often against our better judgment.

What’s also vexing about love is that it always seems to pop out of nowhere (“of nothing first create.”) Before we know it, we find ourselves falling head over heels for someone without being quite sure why that’s even happened. 

sad nia long GIF by TV One

Love’s oxymoronic nature often reduces the lover to a near-moronic stature, as its “heavy lightness”, being “feather of lead”, weighs us down one moment, only to catapult us to cloud nine the next.

It is “serious vanity” – foolish feelings we take too seriously; “bright smoke” – dazzling signs that let us down; “cold fire” – passion that, once gone, leaves behind only icy unconcern; “sick health” – plague of the mind but food for the flesh; “still-waking sleep” – the cause of restless slumber; “that is not what it is” – love, that duplicitous minx, is never what it appears to be! 

frank dicksee Romeo and Juliet pre-raphaelite art
A Pre-Raphaelite rendering of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Frank Dicksee (1853-1928)

Further, the polyptoton and paradox in “O brawling love! O loving hate!” suggest that love isn’t just two-faced – it’s also shrewd about being so two-faced, switching between ‘love’ and ‘hate’ in quick succession as the purpose suits itself, just as the noun “love” changes its coat and becomes, in a matter of syllables, its adjective in “loving hate”. 

It’s interesting to note as well the antimetabole in “This love feel I, that feel no love in this”. The mirroring pattern that hinges on “feel” makes a mockery of Romeo, as what he’s lamenting here is precisely the lack of reciprocity – the ‘unmirroredness’, if you like – in his one-sided love for Rosaline. 

In response to Romeo’s histrionic characterisation of love, Benvolio exclaims that he’d “weep… at [his cousin’s] good heart’s oppression”. Spare yourself, mate, is basically what Benvolio’s saying. 

But soft! Our lovesick protagonist isn’t done yet, as he proceeds with his rant-cum-lament – 

[…]
Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;
Being vex’d a sea nourished with lovers’ tears:
What is it else? A madness most discreet,
A choking gall and a preserving sweet. 

The metaphor of love as smoke recalls Romeo’s earlier reference to “bright smoke”, but here, he piles on even more metaphorical layers. He first describes love’s ‘smoke’ as “the fume of sighs” – more spectre than substance, and one which only results in disappointment and grief. 

Then, he amplifies the scope of comparison by paralleling love to “fire” and “sea”, which are references both hyperbolic and paradoxical. Romeo’s varied explanation of love is a prime example of exergasia (repetition of the same idea in different words), as he dwells on (and on) about love, trying to explain, pin down, and make sense of this most complex of human emotions. 

les miserables cheers GIF by MASTERPIECE | PBS

Indeed, even after he seems to have exhausted all possible turns of phrase – “What is it else?” – there’s still more, as he rounds off with two more paradoxes, characterising love as “a madness most discreet (cunning)”, or “a choking gall and a preserving sweet” (a bittersweet experience). 

 

Act 2 Scene 6: Restraint in love – “love moderately; long love doth so” 

RJ cover_2

As sage and confidant to Romeo and Juliet, Friar Laurence occupies a curious place in the play.

On the one hand, he facilitates the happy union between the lovers, but on the other, he accelerates the tragic ending of their lives. That he’s also a friar – a religious man – adds to the moral dilemma that we as readers/audiences would feel on his behalf. 

By the end of Act 2 Scene 6, Friar Laurence ties the knot for Romeo and Juliet, but not before warning Romeo about the need for restraint in love, however impassioned he may feel in the moment. 

FRIAR LAWRENCE

So smile the heavens upon this holy act
That after-hours with sorrow chide us not.

ROMEO

Amen, amen! but come what sorrow can,
It cannot countervail the exchange of joy
That one short minute gives me in her sight:
Do thou but close our hands with holy words,
Then love-devouring death do what he dare;
It is enough I may but call her mine.

(2.6)

In characteristic Romeo-esque bombast, the soon-to-be-husband claims that no amount of sorrow can undercut the sheer joy he feels from looking at Juliet, and he even goes so far as to ‘challenge’ “love-devouring death [to] do what he dare”, because simply being able to “call her mine” (his wife) is to have achieved the ultimate end goal in life. 

This, of course, drips with dramatic irony, especially if we recall the opening Chorus of the play, which lays bare their eventual death (“a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life”).

By exploiting this gap in knowledge between Romeo and his audience, though, Shakespeare intensifies the poignancy of this scene to skillful effect. 

Friar Laurence’s response compounds this irony, as he delivers in a flurry of sententia his wisdom on love – 

FRIAR LAURENCE

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume: the sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite:
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

(2.6)

In short, he’s saying, ‘Whoa, steady on, kid.’

For love to last, it cannot be the stuff of sparks and fireworks. Alluding to Aristotle’s theory of the ‘Golden Mean’, Friar Lawrence suggests that nothing – not even love – should be pursued in excess, as anything gained too much too quickly will likely meet bad ends.

The antanaclasis of “These violent delights have violent ends” suggests both the good ‘violence’ and bad ‘violence’ of love: when good, violent passion yields the greatest joy known to man; when bad, it results in bloodshed and death. 

Gustav Klimt the kiss
Gustav Klimt, The Kiss (1907-8)

So never stretch love to its extreme, the Friar cautions in a metaphor, as even “the sweetest honey/Is loathsome in his own deliciousness/And in the taste confounds the appetite”, and too much of a good thing will only turn bad. In his injunction to “love moderately; long love doth so”, the polyptoton of “love” – as it changes from being a verb (to love someone in moderation) to a noun (long lasting love) – highlights the need for Romeo to move away from restless ‘loving’ to a calmer state, one of simply being in love.

For a love that is rushed into reality – “too swift” – can be just as problematic as a relationship which develops too slowly and grows stale. 

By placing the antithetical phrases “too swift” and “too slow” at the front and end of the line, Shakespeare ‘cancels out’ their contrasting nature, and instead emphasises the idea of balance as conveyed from Friar Laurence’s vantage. 

But the Friar is preaching to the choir here (or the audience, in this case), because Romeo doesn’t really care about the longevity of love. To him, it’s the intensity of the moment and the authenticity of emotions that count. 

After all, he’s said it himself: the moment I’m able to call Juliet “mine”, I’m happy and ready to die. And die he will, as we already know from the beginning, and will soon witness at the end of the play. 

 

Act 3 Scene 2: Blindness in love – “if love be blind, it best agrees with night” 

act 3 scene 2 Romeo and Juliet

As Juliet waits impatiently in her orchard for Romeo to arrive post-marriage, she delivers a soliloquy which would shock any modern parent. 

Here, you have a 14-year-old girl speaking of her desire to “do… amorous rites” (loving acts = have sex) and to lose her virginity ASAP.

Basically, homegirl can’t wait to consummate her marriage, and without spelling it out too explicitly (have to keep it PG13 for my younger readers), I’ll just say that it’s probably no coincidence for her to repeat the word “come” so many times in the following passage. Make of this what you will… 

JULIET

Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus’ lodging: such a wagoner
As Phaethon would whip you to the west,
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway’s eyes may wink and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk’d of and unseen.
Lovers can see to do their amorous rites
By their own beauties; or, if love be blind,
It best agrees with night. Come, civil night,
Thou sober-suited matron, all in black,
And learn me how to lose a winning match,
Play’d for a pair of stainless maidenhoods:
Hood my unmann’d blood, bating in my cheeks,
With thy black mantle; till strange love, grown bold,
Think true love acted simple modesty.
Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven’s back.
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
O, I have bought the mansion of a love,
But not possess’d it, and, though I am sold,
Not yet enjoy’d: so tedious is this day
As is the night before some festival
To an impatient child that hath new robes
And may not wear them. O, here comes my nurse,
And she brings news; and every tongue that speaks
But Romeo’s name speaks heavenly eloquence. 
[…]

(3.2) 

Like Romeo, Juliet is impatient. Unlike him, however, she calls not for a human agent (her Nurse) to hurry up (as in the case of Romeo towards Friar Laurence in Act 2 Scene 6), but for cosmic elements to “gallop apace”, and for the Greek sun god’s child – “Phaethon” to “whip [the sun] to the west/And bring in cloudy night immediately”. 

Her authoritative tone makes for a curious point of contrast against Romeo’s pleading register when he asks the Friar to “do thou but close our hands with holy words” (2.6), and shows us a level of power and self-determination that befits a Shakespearean heroine. Juliet doesn’t play second fiddle; she is in command of her love, and she’s fully aware of what she’s in for.

Claire Danes Romeo and Juliet
Claire Danes as Juliet in the 1996 film adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Photo credit: 20th Century Fox)

This also foreshadows the courage that she’ll show upon killing herself (“O happy dagger! This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die”, 5.3), after she sees Romeo’s corpse in the tomb. 

A key point of interest here is the analogy of love to the night. In “Come, civil night”, the word “night” could double as a pun for “knight”, characterised as a “sober-suited matron, all in black”, who can teach her “how to lose a winning match” (notice the use of military imagery). 

But she’s already ‘won’ by marrying Romeo, and whatever’s left to ‘lose’ isn’t any sort of victory, but instead, her “stainless maidenhood” – which she wants to lose to her husband.

Still, Juliet’s aware of her overzealousness, and is shy about her sexual anticipation, which is suggested in her call for night to “hood my unmann’d blood, bating in my cheeks/With thy black mantle” – darkness will hide her blush. 

Despite its knightly stature, ‘night’ also takes on different forms, and is in turn described as “gentle”, “loving”, “black-brow’d”, and the natural abode of heaven. Most of all, Juliet seems to associate Romeo with the night sky – 

… when he shall die,
[I’ll] Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun. 

This is hyperbolic in the extreme, but also incredibly poetic. The message here is that love belongs to the domain of the night, when lovers can best show their passion to each other while not being seen by others, and ironically, for not really seeing each other too clearly.

To love well and deeply, then, it is perhaps necessary to be comfortable with some degree of ‘blindness’, which, while not of the literal sort, manifests itself in absolute faith and emotional investment in the other person. 

Being blind to one’s sanity and rationality, it seems, is the ultimate mandate of love. To gain in passion, one must sacrifice a slice of reason, but to sacrifice all of reason is perhaps to meet a fate not unlike Romeo and Juliet’s. 

What are your views on how love is presented in this famous play? I’m excited to hear your thoughts, so comment below! 

red line

For a detailed analysis on some of Shakespeare’s other plays, check out the links below: 

Watch / listen to my recorded lecture on this blog post below: 

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