Throughout the famous and tragic play of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, William Shakespeare applies various methods to try and increase the sympathy of the audience towards Romeo. During the course of the play, Romeo’s language varies in style and structure on numerous occasions in an attempt to get the audience to sympathise with him. The playwright also juxtaposes certain key scenes which adds to our empathy for Romeo’s situation. Dramatic irony is a clever method which largely increases audience empathy towards Romeo. I will discuss the above methods as well as a few others used by Shakespeare to convey Romeo in sympathetic manner.
Shakespeare subtly applies the technique of fate upon the prologue.
“A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows”.
This is implying that Romeo’s relationship with Juliet is ill-fated. This could potentially have some impact on the audience and make them feel sorry for Romeo, as his love affair is doomed from the start, and will never conclude in happiness. In my opinion, this is a good technique to create some sympathy at the beginning of the play so that Shakespeare can build upon it later. During the rest of the play, Shakespeare intensifies his use of fate as horrific things continue to happen to Romeo over which he has no control. As a member of the audience, the realisation that Romeo is a helpless victim further increases the sympathy I have towards him. The theme of fate will continue to manifest itself throughout the rest of the play.
In Act 1 Scene 1, Romeo is in love with Rosaline but she has no feelings for him in return. He is clearly unsettled by this and shows his uncertainty through a series of impossible images. His language mirrors his unsettled thoughts and feelings and heightens our sympathy for him.
“O heavy lightness, serious vanity
Misshapen chaos of well seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is”
This series of oxymorons are very physical, as in “sick-health” and “still-waking sleep”. Even though Romeo is healthy, he is sick because he can’t have Rosaline and even when he rests, Rosaline is still on his mind. Shakespeare is describing the physical symptoms of love and unrequited feelings through Romeo’s choice of language. This makes me empathise with Romeo and feel compassionate towards him.
He continues, in rhyming couplets, to describe love as a sad emotion which causes despair. Romeo uses a number of distressing but evocative images to portray love, “Love is a smoke made with a fume of sighs”. This image is effective in two different ways. It shows love as something that blurs and perplexes those who experience it. It also shows that love is made of “sighs” i.e. human misery.
“A sea nourished with loving tears”. Romeo has employed an epic image of a sea of sadness created by unhappiness. “A madness most discreet”. This brilliant phrase captures Romeo’s helplessness as he fears for his sanity and feels he cannot tell anyone. This phrase is perhaps ironic as Romeo is actually engaged in explaining to Benvolio how he feels.
Towards the end of Act 1, Scene 1, Romeo tells Benvolio “Thou canst teach me to forget?” However, In Act 1, Scene 5 he suddenly has a change of heart. This erodes some of the sympathy that I have towards him as this shows him as young and impulsive, and makes me doubt what he said earlier.
Now Romeo uses more positive language to describe love. In lines 43-52, Romeo uses a series of ecstatic rhyming couplets to describe Juliet as a bright flame, “torches to burn” and as a “rich jewel in a ethiop’s ear”. He contrasts brightness with darkness, “a snowy dove trooping with crows”. This joyful language makes me feel happy for Romeo as this is the first time we have not seen Romeo miserable.
The way Shakespeare then juxtaposes Romeo’s happiness and love with him finding out that Juliet is a Capulet makes me feel for him “My life is my foe’s debt”. This is because I am reminded of how he felt after being turned down by Rosaline and fear that we will see the despairing and obstreperous version of Romeo again.
Act 2 Scene 2 begins with a soliloquy from Romeo and we see a repetition of the light imagery employed in Act 1 Scene 5, “Juliet is the sun” and “two of the fairest stars”. This reminds me of the star image and fate technique used in the Prologue. Though Romeo is happy at this point, we know it will not last. The use of the soliloquy technique allows us to hear what Romeo is thinking, which makes me feel more intimate towards him. Romeo’s innocence is shown in his following dialogue with Juliet as Shakespeare conveys his youth and nativity using a school metaphor.
“Love goes towards love, as schoolboys from their books;
But love from love, toward school with heavy looks”
I find this method particularly successful in combination with the fate method.
As the play progresses, various people express their views on Romeo, particularly when he behaves in an impulsive manner. In Act 1, Scene 2, we see Benvolio advising Romeo on how to recover from his love for Rosaline.
“Take thou some new infection to thy eye,
And the rank poison of the old will die”
This quote is a rhyming couplet that shows love in a negative manner with images of physical sickness, This shows that Benvolio, though sympathetic toward Romeo, does not take him seriously. Benvolio’s attitude is that you can replace one girl with another girl. This makes me sympathetic towards Romeo because his friend is not taking his anguish seriously.
By contrast, Friar Lawrence, in Act 2, Scene 6, does take Romeo seriously and advises him to calm down.
“These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die like fire and powder
Which as they kiss consume”
Shakespeare employs a violent light image of explosive love. It forecasts what is going to happen in the next scene. It also reminds me of the fate technique employed throughout the play. I feel sorry for Romeo because he is being offered the correct but annoying advice. This shows his inexperience, foolishness and immaturity. In Act 3, Scene 1, Tybalt calls Romeo “Boy”, underlining Romeo’s immaturity shown previously. This reminds me of all the foolish decisions which Romeo has made that will later cost him. I think that Tybalt does this to infuriate Romeo, and it works.
“Thou wretched boy, that didst consort him here,
Shalt with him hence, This shall determine that”
Shakespeare uses Juxtaposition throughout the play. This technique of great impact, is at it’s most effective when he juxtaposes Act 2 Scene 6 and Act 3 Scene 1. The manner in which the atmosphere of the play changes from happiness to disaster left me empathising with Romeo. In Act 2 Scene 6, Romeo is ecstatic with joy ” if the measure of thy joy is heap’d like mine”. He has just married Juliet and is now a totally different man from the one to whom we were first introduced too. Then, in the next scene Romeo’s world is spun into chaos after an impromptu confrontation ends in Tybalt and Mercutio being murdered.
“In my behalf;
My reputation stain’d with Tybalt’s slander- Tybalt,
that an hour hath been my cousin. O sweet Juliet!”
Earlier in the play, the Montagues and Capulets where warned that if they ever “disturbed the streets again” they “shall pay the forfeit”. They disobeyed the Prince in brawling in the streets, and with Romeo being the only surviving participant, he was punished and banished away from Verona. This means that he will not be able to see Juliet again. This happens all on his wedding day which makes this juxtaposition even more dramatic.
This technique achieved it’s intended target and brings back memories of the star image and fate technique once more, “O, I am fortunes fool” . This is when Romeo himself realises that he is doomed. It is as if nothing that Romeo does will ever end in happiness or joy and it is his fate that he lives in tragedy and despair. The saddest thing about the confrontation is that Romeo tried his best to stay out of trouble and not inflict any pain “Beat down their weapons. Gentleman for shame”. Even though his intentions were good, “I thought all for the best”, after the death of his friend Mercutio he was provoked into retaliation. The sympathy that I have for Romeo has been built up during the course of the play but the juxtaposition of the two scenes has further aroused it.
Dramatic irony is probably one of Shakespeare’s favourite methods as he uses it on numerous occasions throughout his plays. This play is no exception and he applies it very well, with the outcome being greater audience empathy than ever before. Act 5 Scene 3, the death scene in the tomb involving Romeo and Juliet is the setting for a masterpiece of dramatic irony. It is wonderfully applied and in combination with all the other techniques throughout the play makes you feel extremely sorry for the tragedy that was Romeo’s life. Shakespeare built up my sympathy so well that I longed for Romeo not to take the poison because Juliet would awake.
When Romeo receives the news of Juliet’s death, he rushes to the tomb to see his wife. He sees her lying motionless and thinks that she really is dead.
“O my love, my wife!
Death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath,
Hath no power yet upon thy beauty”
Rather than bear life without Juliet, Romeo decides to poison himself bringing his ill-fated life to an end.
“O here Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world wearied flesh”
Romeo’s language is now very definite. He is finally going to rid himself, through death, of the curse of the stars that he has been carrying since the prologue.
Juliet then awakes to see Romeo dead, “Poison, I see, hath been his timeless death”.
Returning to the prologue, we remember that the “pair of star crossed lovers'” relationship was doomed to end in agony and pain. That it did, made me feel compassion for them. In Romeo’s death speech, Act 1, Scene 3, Shakespeare diverts from his usual use of very regular iambic pentameter. Romeo’s verse is slightly irregular showing the destruction of his feelings. The language Romeo uses in this last speech evokes pity, “arms take your last embrace”.
“Thou take desperate pilot, now once at run on,
the dashing rocks thy sea sick weary bark”.
The image here is that of Romeo steering a ship which is out of control and Shakespeare is using the metaphor of a doomed boat to describe Romeo’s doomed life!
“Thus with a kiss I die”. I found this quite emotional as he is embracing Juliet for the last time.
The amount of sympathy Shakespeare can manipulate an audience into feeling is quite extraordinary, and proves once more why he is still being studied and performed four hundred years after his death. He was absolutely exceptional in the way he perfected the use of each technique. His plan was clearly to build up empathy slowly during the course of the play and end it with a spectacular dramatic finale. His most effective method, in my opinion, was that of dramatic irony followed closely by the choice of language Romeo used and the use of juxtaposition of events. All in all, I think Shakespeare builds up sympathy exceptionally well which makes the play surprising, emotional, exciting and enjoyable.