Although it is a tragedy in that the play conforms to Aristotle’s definition of an essentially good person brought down by circumstances and his hubris or fatal flaw; Romeo and Juliet is the most famous love story of all time. As such the audience witnesses many different aspects of love as the drama unfolds.
Courtly Love originated in thirteenth century France. The admiration of a young man for an older married woman was well documented in the songs and ballads of the Troubadours or minstrels who sung of un-requited love. The most a young man could expect from the object of his love would be a “favour” in the form of a glove or handkerchief. It was also known as the “poetry of frustration” as no consummation was ever anticipated. The relationship was one of artifice and show; it was never any threat to a woman’s marriage. For the woman it was a diversion from the boredom of an arranged marriage; for the young man it was a vehicle for testing his emotional capabilities. Romeo’s devotion to Rosaline who has vowed to be a nun and therefore is un-attainable is a good example of Courtly Love: “She’ll not be hit with Cupid’s arrow, she hath Dian’s wit!”. Romeo Confirms Benvolio’s suspicion: “Then she has sworn that she will live chaste”. Despite being beautiful, she will not stay the siege of loving terms”. In a tormented out-burst Romeo vents his frustration in a series of oxymoron’s to express his confusion: “brawling love”, “feather of lead” and “cold fire” are examples of these.
It was common practice in 16th century Verona for sons and daughters of esteemed families to marry the chosen suitors of equally respectable families. As “two households, both alike in dignity”, it might have been expected for such an arrangement to exist between the Capulates and the Montague’s If there had not been an “ancient grudge” between them. The enmity that existed between them had caused much civil unrest angering the Prince to such an extent that he had threatened “on pain of death” that any further insurrection would result in Capital Punishment. County Paris is the chosen future husband of Juliet even though, “She hath not seen the change of fourteen years”. Lady Capulate and the nurse put this proposal to Juliet, who is surprised that they are even discussing marriage: “It is an honor which I dream not of”. County Paris seems to be a good catch; he is wealthy, highly connected, “a man of wax”; “He’s a flower, in faith, a very flower”. Juliet agrees to consider him at the fourth coming party, “I’ll look to like, if looking liking”. Arranged marriages can still be found in society today. They are most commonly found amoungst Asian families to preserve cultural and religious tradition. Compatibility is valued more highly than romance.
In the Montague “camp” platonic love plays a major role. As young men Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio revel in each other’s company. Like puppies they play fight, tease each other, ridicule, but fundamentally support and love each other. Male friendship was highly desirable in a world in which men and women were not on equal footing and usually lived quite seperate lives. It is Benvolio who is able to get to the bottom of Romeo’s grief over Rosaline and who offers the sound advice, “Be ruled by me, forget to think of her”. Mercutio is less sensitive having a more casual attitude to love: “If love be rough with you, be rough with love”.
Romeo’s soliloquy on first seeing Juliet is a poetic celebration of her beauty. Through rhyming couplets, Romeo a’ likens her radiance to “torches and jewels”. The black and white imagery heightens the contrast between Juliet and a “snowy dove”, among the other women; who are likened to “crows”. The sonnet form of Romeo and Juliet’s words to each other is highly appropriate as it is the poetry of love. Religious imagery is predominant as Shakespeare convinces the audience that their attraction is sacred, not profane: “this holy shrine” and “while my prayers affect I take”.
During the Balcony scene in the couplets orchard Romeo risks his life for another glimpse of his beloved Juliet as she is now the center of his life, it is a risk he is willing to take. He proclaims “Juliet is the Sun” and her eyes are “two of the fairest stars in the heaven”. She is so lustrous that: “The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars; as daylight doth a lamp”. Throughout their dialogue the language is moving, poetic and memorable; religious imagery, the contrast between dark and light and references to the sun, moon and stars prevail, “bright angel”, “Dear Saint”, “O swear not by the moon”. Other contrasts include that of the natural elements: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea”, “It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden; Too like the lightning”, “That which we call by any other word would smell as rose sweet”.
Black and White and day and night imagery reflects Juliet’s impatience as she waits her husband’s return on her wedding night: “For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night, whiter than new snow upon a ravens back”. However, oxymorons are the favoured device to express her turmoil and despair on learning from the nurse that not only is her cousin Tibalt murdered, but that the heinous crime has been committed by Romeo. “Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical, Dove-feather’d raven wolvish-ravening lamb!”
Romeo and Juliet have one night of happiness before the tragedy unfolds and yet again they use the images of daylight and darkness to reflect their emotions. If it is the “nightingale” they can hear then they still have time together; if it is “the lark” heralding the morning their time is up. Romeos simple line: “If must be gone and live, or story and die” succinctly captures their dilemma. He reiterates this in the tragic line: “More light and light and light it grows”. As he leaves, Juliet’s final words are full of pathos: “let day in, and let life out”.
Friar Lawrence’s plan for the young lovers tragically misfires when plague at Manchua prevents the letter to Romeo arriving at its destination. The gruesome metaphor employed by Romeo to describe the mausoleum is appropriately gruesome: “thou detestable maw, thou womb of death, gorged with the dearest morsel of the earth” The drama claims its final victims in Paris, Romeo and Juliet; who all die in the final moments. Those to blame are the adults who maintained “The ancient grudge”. The youngsters, “whose misadventure piteous overthrows, do with their death bury their parents strife” but, pay the ultimate price. The “star crossed” lovers seemed to have been pre-ordained by foul to face a tragic ending. The audience is probably in full agreement that: “For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo”. This rhyming couplet reflects the finality of the action.