William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous love stories of all time. Written in approximately 1595, it is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s great works. Using the on-going feud between the Montagues and the Capulets as a backdrop to his play, Shakespeare gains an insight into the lives of the residents of Verona. As the story unfolds, a great variety of moral approaches and explanations as to the meaning of love and value of marriage are explored.
Different characters in the play have diverse approaches to the theme of love and marriage. At the beginning of the play, Romeo is clearly fascinated with the notion of being in love. It is this attraction to being in love rather than actual love that is displayed for the character of Rosaline. The audience does not see Rosaline throughout the whole play; they only gain an insight to her from Romeo’s clichï¿½d descriptions. Shakespeare makes a play on words in the language he uses when describing the places Romeo goes when ‘in love’ with Rosaline. e.g. Benvolio tells of Romeo’s times in ‘the grove of sycamore’ (sick-a-more), revealing Romeo’s love sick indulgence. In the words of Mercutio, Romeo’s love for Rosaline is ‘nothing but vain fantasy’. Romeo is seen to spend much of his time in darkness whilst he is infatuated with Rosaline. Benvolio describes him as stealing away ‘into the covert of the wood’. A comparison can be made with Romeo’s love for Juliet and the infatuation with Rosaline in the language that is used. With Rosaline, Romeo is always described as being confused and lamenting at his situation. Romeo’s use of oxymorons develop this impression of bewilderment; ‘…heavy lightness, serious vanity /…feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire…’, but his love for Juliet is genuine and pure.Order now
An interesting interpretation of Romeo’s rehearsed love for Rosaline is made in Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliette (1996). When the character of Romeo is first introduced he is writing down the oxymorons ‘oh brawling love, oh loving hate…’ Later, when he speaks to Benvolio he repeats these words again, giving the false impression of spontaneity though the audience know that this is not the case.
Taking the popular expression ‘to be in the dark’ to mean not knowing the full truth or not understanding, Shakespeare is dropping a subtle hint at the fact that what is shown for Rosaline is not really love at all, it is just a well rehearsed idea in the imagination of a teenage boy. Benvolio also makes an important insight into Romeo’s love for Rosaline ‘Blind is his love, and best befits the dark’. One could say that when Romeo meets Juliet, he has ‘seen the light’. Romeo instantly sees Juliet as the right woman for him. In saying, ‘Did my heart love till now?’ and ‘I ne’er saw true beauty till this night’; Romeo finally reveals to himself and the audience that his previous impression of love was false. He describes Juliet in terms of light and all the beautiful things associated with light. To him she is now ‘the sun’ who ‘kills the envious moon’. This is a far cry from the images of despair and darkness shown for Rosaline. Juliet is a pure, almost god-like being to him and he has completely dispelled any thought of love for Rosaline. Later in Act 2, when Friar Lawrence questions Romeo on Rosaline he replies ‘Rosaline…No/I have forgot that name and that name’s woe’; she is nothing more than a distant memory to him.
Near the beginning of Act 1, the audience learn of Juliet’s age: she is only 13. It is important to note that in Elizabethan times, this was seen as a remarkably young age to think about marriage. It is apparent that Lady Capulet spends very little time with her daughter and knows very little about her. In asking the Nurse ‘She’s not fourteen?’ she shows that she has handed over all responsibility of bringing up Juliet to the Nurse. This was common practice for wealthy families in Shakespeare’s day; it is unlikely that an Elizabethan audience would have considered this abnormal. Considering Juliet’s youth, it is surprising that her mother is so quick to talk about her proposed marriage to Paris. She asks ‘Tell me…how stands your disposition to be married?’ Lady Capulet reveals that she herself gave birth to Juliet when she was her age, she does not think that this is a problem.
Her husband however has different thoughts on the matter when confronted by Paris. He thinks that it would be wise to ‘let two more summers wither away in their pride’ and advises Paris to ‘woo her gentle’. At this point in the play, he is seen as a caring father; by comparison, he seems to have no problem to push Juliet into this unwanted marriage, later on in the play. Juliet’s pivotal words at the end of Act 1 Scene III: ‘I’ll look to like…but no more deep…than your consent’ reveal a lot about her personality. At this point in the play her sole purpose is to be an obedient daughter. She does not understand the meaning of love so cannot fully comprehend that it is impossible to be subservient when the powers of love and fate stand in the way. She will only fully appreciate this when she meets her true love, Romeo.
Other characters in the play seem to define love in the form of sexual innuendo. Mercutio and Juliet’s Nurse are seen as comic characters in their use of puns and jokes. Mercutio is one of the most vibrant characters of the play. His eccentric plays on words and his vivid descriptions of all things sexual bring the play to life. He is the ideal personification of youth and energy. His thoughts on love are made clear when he tells Romeo ‘Be rough with love…prick love for pricking and you beat love down’. Here, he is instructing Romeo to; rather than despair over his situation in love, fight with love. The idea of pricking implies sexual activity and therefore Mercutio advises him to enjoy the sexual thrills of love. He has no sense of romance and is interested in lust and physical love. Romeo and Juliet’s perception of love being ‘flattering, sweet and substantial’ are a far cry from Mercutio’s crude jokes about ‘open arses’ and ‘quivering thighs’. He does not understand Romeo’s melancholic yearning for Rosaline, ‘You burden love, too great an oppression for a tender thing.’ Mercutio considers love to be a fun and happy state of mind rather than the complex array of emotion that Romeo speaks of. He sees Romeo’s state of mind as ridiculous saying ‘If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark’.
He loves to talk and be the centre of attention and often goes off on a tangent; it is unlikely that Mercutio has ever been in love. He is incapable of loving anybody more than himself. Mercutio gives the beginning of the play a light hearted mood, contrasting with the moving scenes of fighting and suicide at the end of the play. In Mercutio’s ‘Queen Mab’ speech, (portrayed to be drug induced in Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996)) Mercutio talks of dreams saying ‘dreamers often lie’, it seems that Mercutio is the only person to see through Romeo’s attention-seeking behaviour. It is important to note that Mercutio is the first character to die, as soon as this happens, love is seen as something far more important than sex and fun; it is a matter of life and death.
Friar Lawrence is one of the most interesting and mysterious characters of the play. His early interest in plants and herbs indicates some of the events that that take place at the end of the play. In saying that ‘Poison hath residence’ in these plants it is clear to the audience that this is a potential component to Romeo and Juliet’s deaths at the end of the play. Friar Lawrence is pleased to hear of the news that Romeo no longer dotes on Rosaline and comments on this love by saying ‘Thy love did read by rote that could not spell.’ This is clear confirmation that it is visible to all that Romeo could not spell out his love for Rosaline and had merely recited different impressions of love as they came into his head. He notes that youthful love rests ‘Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes’ this wise analysis portrays Friar Lawrence to be a learned and wise man whose advise should be listened too. His willingness to agree to marry Romeo and Juliet; although an apparent gesture of goodwill, is seen by many as to be the cause for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet later on in the play.
Shakespeare’s use of language is a clear indication at the general mood of the play. It is often those with less social status who do not use rhyme. For example the serving staff in the first scene speak using slang and use little eloquent language in their speech. ‘My naked weapon is out’, said by Sampson is a line unlikely to be used by somebody of higher class. When Romeo and Juliet share their romantic encounter on Juliet’s balcony, some of the most beautiful language of play is used. Shakespeare’s use of sonnets and the religious references are vital to the structure of their lines. ‘Love’s light wings’ make this experience almost dreamlike for both persons; so much so, that Juliet sees it essential to confirm this love, which is in her mind ‘too rash, too unadvised, too sudden’, with marriage. Another evocative use of language is in the words said by Friar Lawrence. A striking resemblance between the way Mercutio speaks and the way Juliet’s Nurse speak can also be observed. The Nurse’s words of ‘seek happy nights to happy days’ said to Juliet, are similar to Mercutio’s advice to stop burdening love when it ‘is such a tender thing’. The Nurse and Mercutio also enjoy making sexual suggestions.
In conclusion, love and marriage are approached by different characters in Romeo and Juliet from different points of view. This specific point of view is determined by a variety of factors, namely: social class, age and personality. Despite these differences in opinion, all characters agree on one fundamental thought: that love and marriage are not one-dimensioned states of mind. They are multi faceted ideas and there is no absolute definition for each one. Love and marriage cannot be experienced by an individual but by two individuals who each have their own aspirations for life.