Love is an important theme in “Romeo and Juliet” and is interpreted in many ways by the many different characters. After the prologue, which is filled with hints of the ending for the “star-crossed lovers”, the play opens with a scene between Sampson and Gregory who are two servants of the Capulet family. They are vulgar and crude, making many sexual references and innuendoes. They do not see love as involving emotions or desires, but as a purely physical thing, sexual not emotional. Sampson refers to women as “weaker vessels” and tells of how he will rape the maids of the Montague household. Neither of them appears to have ever experienced true love.
They talk in a rude and coarse manner and objectify women. The opening helps the audience to contrast this vulgar image of love shown in a humorous context, to Romeo and Juliet’s sincere love for each other. This perception of love is also shared by the nurse and Mercutio, both who are comical characters. Mercutio’s humour is mostly offensive and insulting; he sees love as a pointless emotion. Mercutio teases Romeo from the start for being a “lover”. He believes that love is just an illusion, it’s made up in dreams by “Queen Mab”, he says she
“…gallops night by night through lovers brains, and then they dream of love”.
The nurse uses similar bawdy language by way of,
“Go girl, seek happy nights to happy days.”
The nurse urges Juliet to get all of the pleasures out of love and she ensures Juliet and Romeo are able to marry and indulge in their sexual relationship. In this way, although there is long elaborate speech of true passionate love between Romeo and Juliet, there is also rude and coarse language which would have appealed to the lower-class audience.
In the Elizabethan era, it was common for a young man to fall hopelessly in love with an unattainable beautiful woman, often with little chance of being loved back. This is how we first meet Romeo; he is very depressed and confused. However, you see many different attitudes towards love from Romeo; during each situation he is in, he reveals a different portrayal of love. Here he tells his cousin, Benvolio, of how he is in love with a woman, Rosaline, and speaks his love.
“This love feel I, that feel no love in this.”
Romeo speaks of how he does not enjoy being in love and that he sees it as a punishment, like being “shut up in prison” or like being “whipped and tormented.” He talks of love as being something he has to do, not something he feels. Benvolio believes that Romeo is not really in love, but that it is more of an infatuation. In his attempts to help Romeo overcome his obsession, Benvolio tells him to “examine other beauties.” Benvolio does not have a lot of belief in true love but merely in loving the beauty of women. In this scene, the audience see Romeo for the first time and they are exposed to a pathetic, depressed, miserable boy, who does not take pleasure in love,
“…ay me sad hours seem long…”
However the fact Shakespeare never reveals Rosaline to the audience adds mystery to Romeo’s obsession.
This kind of “love” he feels for Rosaline did not tend to lead towards marriage, which was something else. Marriage often had nothing to do with love; it was arranged between families and was generally all to do with legal contracts, family, pride and wealth. This is shown by Juliet’s parents; Capulet is much older than Lady Capulet, who married when she was very young. Her mother learnt to love him after they married. This is also depicted in the scene when Paris asks Capulet for Juliet’s hand in marriage before he has even met her. Although Juliet is very young, Capulet still gives Juliet a choice of if she wants to be married and by this shows his affection for her. He refers to her as the “hopeful lady” of his earth and she calls him as “good father.” He believes marriage as a good thing but also states that love is preferable. He does also show his concern about Juliet’s age,
“She hath not seen the change of fourteen years,
Let two more summers wither in their pride,
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.”
Yet Paris states that women younger than Juliet are already made mothers, a thought shared also with Lady Capulet,
“Well, think of marriage now; younger than you,
Here in Verona, ladies of esteem,
Are made already mothers: by my count.”
She feels marriage is more important than love as well,
“So shall you share all that he doth possess,
By having him, making yourself no less.”
She implies that marriage a necessity and it is what women are made for. Lady Capulet also recites a long elaborate speech full of comparisons of Paris’ face and love being like a book,
“Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face,
…This precious book of love, this unbound lover…”
This speech starts with the assumption that because Paris is “a man of wax,” Juliet should be very excited to be given the chance to marry him and should immediately be attracted to him. However, Lady Capulet soon gets irritated when Juliet shows no signs of interest; she hurries Juliet, asking her of her feelings towards this,
“Speak briefly, can you like of Paris’ love?”
Juliet answers in such a way that keeps her parents happy,
“I’ll look to like, if looking liking move,”
She says that she will look forward to liking him, if by looking at him can lead her to liking him. As she is so young, her answer seems acceptable as her mother does not question her further.
Lady Capulet’s scene with Juliet is not normally how a mother addresses her daughter or how a daughter addresses her mother. Their dialogue seems very formal and polite,
“Madam, I am here.
What is your will?”
This depicts the distance between Juliet and her mother; instead of saying “mother,” she says “madam.” However, this gap between them is filled by the nurse. The nurse effectively acts as Juliet’s substitute mother and it is her, who Juliet confides in and trusts.
When Romeo first meets Juliet, the insincerity of his “love” for Rosaline is exposed and he suddenly realises it,
“Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.”
He speaks of how his love for Rosaline was not true and pure, like the love he now feels for Juliet. His attitude towards love changes as suddenly as his change of heart. Romeo’s feelings sound more genuine in speeches about Juliet than of Rosaline which was much more exaggerated. He wants to be with Juliet all the time, and he is continually comparing her to a saint and the light that can brighten up anything.
“O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
…O, then, dear saint,
…O, speak again, bright angel!”
In the sonnet shared by Romeo and Juliet, the interpretation of love is shown as religion. There are many references to “saints,” “pilgrims,” “shrines,” “holy,” “prayers,” “faith” and “devotion.” This is an obvious contrast to how he felt when he was in love with Rosaline. Juliet seems very playful in her language with Romeo but she also feels the same way as she refers to him as her “only love”.
In their scene at the balcony, Romeo now feels love as being a power in which he can “with love’s light wings” fly over the high walls surrounding the Capulet mansion. When Juliet asks Romeo how he knew which room was hers, Romeo replied,
“By love that first did prompt me to inquire;
He lent me counsel, and I lent him eyes.”
This means that love led him to her balcony. Juliet, in this scene, seems much more mature than Romeo and speaks in a much more serious tone; Romeo speaks using elaborate and indirect language,
“It is my soul that calls upon my name:
How silver-sweet sound lovers’ tongues by night,
Like softest music to attending ears!”
Juliet does not like his theatrical speech, instead she gradually tears Romeo away from this artificial language in which he used with Rosaline. Juliet speaks of love as being eternal and sacred,
“My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.”
She believes in their love so much that she accepts to marry him, the only son of her parents sworn enemy, even though Paris had offered to marry her.
Friar Lawrence acts as Romeo’s substitute father and looks after him throughout Romeo’s relationship with Juliet. He agrees to marry them thinking it will unite their families but still feels it is still a risk,
“Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.”
When the Friar remarks on how quickly he falls in love, Romeo replies by saying that there is a difference between his old love and his new one,
“…Her I love now
Doth grace for grace and love for love allow.
The other did not so.”
This is another example of how Romeo is truly in love with Juliet. The friar is similar to the role of the nurse towards Juliet as they both look after and advise the young lovers.
In conclusion, there are many forms of love; parental love, marital love and physical love. I believe that “Romeo and Juliet” contains the right balance of each different aspect of love. The humorous “bawdy” language of Mercutio and the nurse provide a break from all the ominous reminders of the tragic ending and the elaborate, fancy dialogue of Romeo and Juliet. These crude parts of the play would also have appealed to the lower class and less cultured members of the Elizabethan audience. All in all, the theme of love is well presented in many different ways by many characters.