Themes in Romeo and Juliet
Love: The central storyline in the play is the romance between Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of their particular romance is its doomed nature. The play opens with a sonnet that describes the two title characters as “a pair of star-crossed lovers,” a saying from astrology that means their love is destined to be “frustrated” or doomed by the stars. In the context of a Shakespearean tragedy, romantic love is something inherently fleeting and doomed.
Loyalty: The force pulling the two lovers apart is loyalty, namely loyalty to family. The Capulets and the Montagues represent the two most powerful aristocratic families in Verona and are at odds with one another. Juliet, a Capulet, and Romeo, a Montague, are torn between loyalty to their families and loyalty to one another. Secondary characters, such as Mercutio, Tybalt, and Benvolio, are also marked and condemned by their loyalty to the families.
Tragedy: Romeo and Juliet is an example of a tragedy, a style of play that depicts human suffering and often death. The ancient Greeks considered tragedy one of the highest forms of art. Using the grim subject matter, the work achieves beauty. The audience is guided into the experience of catharsis, a powerful release of negative feelings in the face of fear, pity, and sorrow.
Themes Examples in Romeo and Juliet:
Act I - Scene I
"O brawling love! O loving hate..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Shakespeare creates a microcosm within this line that represents the larger themes at work within the play. Love and hatred are intimately bound together and interchangeable in this line. Throughout the play Shakespeare blurs the lines between love and hatred to show that the two seemingly opposing feelings different sides of a single feeling.
"Draw thy tool..." See in text (Act I - Scene I)
Penis jokes were common in the theater of Shakespeare's time. Notice that the penis and the sword here are conflated. Shakespeare begins his play showing the intense hatred between the two houses in this feud. Notice that the feud is discussed using sexual organs and sexual violence. This clownish word play begins to introduce a main theme explored in this play about how love and violence problematically exist in the same space and influence each other.
Act I - Scene III
"in gold clasps locks in the golden story..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
Lady Capulet uses this extended metaphor comparing Paris to a book in order to convince her daughter that he is a worthy man. In this metaphor, Juliet is the gold clasps that makes Paris the perfect golden story. Lady Capulet draws on the same ideas of art and theater that were presented in the Prologue in order to convince her daughter to marry. Just as the theater needs an audience in order to make sense, a good book (or man) needs a reader (or woman) to bring it to life. This theme of witnesses affecting story telling reoccurs in different ways throughout the play.
"stint..." See in text (Act I - Scene III)
In this time period "stint" meant to stop or cease action. Notice that the Nurse does not stop telling the story when Lady Capulet asks her to stop talking but does listen to Juliet. This demonstrates the close relationship between the Nurse and Juliet. While Lady Capulet coldly tells her to stop talking, Juliet entreats her to end her tale with the loving affection of a daughter to a mother. This is another place in which familial relations are figured in an odd way. At the beginning family causes bloodshed and brawls, and here familial allegiance is outside of blood.
Act I - Scene IV
"vain fantasy;..." See in text (Act I - Scene IV)
"Vain fantasy" is the indulgence in one's imagination which exists in an unreal space outside of reality. Romeo stops Mercutio because he talks of "nothing" meaning something that is intangible. However, Romeo's love for Rosaline is just as intangible as Mercutio's made up fairies. Mercutio's point here is that things made up in the imagination have just as much impact on reality as corporeal things. A theme we will see play out over the course of the play.
Act I - Scene V
"My only love, sprung from my only hate! Too early seen unknown, and known too late! Prodigious birth of love it is to me That I must love a loathed enemy...." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
Juliet touches on one of the play's major themes with these famous lines. She has fallen in love with Romeo without knowing that he is a Montague. What he is, a Montague, proceeds who he is. Much like the play which is defined as a tragedy before it even begins, Romeo is defined as a Montague before Juliet even meets him. Thus her love, though pure when it began becomes prodigious, or unnatural and monstrous, because of Romeo's predetermined identity.
"choler..." See in text (Act I - Scene V)
"Choler" is a reference to the humor believed to cause anger. Tybalt's threat to seek revenge comes directly before the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet. Notice how violence and love are interlaced throughout this scene as they are throughout the play.
Act II - Scene II
"Parting is such sweet sorrow,..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
"Sweet sorrow" is an oxymoron that encompasses Romeo and Juliet's relationship which is composed of ecstatic love and complicated sorrow over their family's rivalry. This line may also underscore the relationship the audience has to this play. It is at once one of the greatest examples of pure, young love, but also one of the best known tragedies in the Western canon. It is both a sweet tale of love and a bleak tale of loss and sorrow. Juliet characterizes the bitter sweet nature of her tragic love in one of the most iconic lines in this play.
"bird..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
Notice that birds are a motif throughout this play. They often highlight the themes of light and dark, day and night, or beauty and love. Birds symbolize modesty, fidelity, and innocence. However, they are also fragile, vulnerable, and delicate. Birds appear throughout the story to underscore the beauty and fragility of Romeo and Juliet's love, and to mark the transition from a space in which love keeps them safe to a space in which the real world intrudes on that space. In this way, birds are both a symbol of their perfect love and an omen of their coming deaths.
"bent..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
In this context, "bent" means inclination or desire. Marriage and courtship were much different in Shakespeare's time. Generally, relations of any kind outside of marriage, including kissing, vowing love, or being alone together, were seen as dishonorable. Marriages were arranged by parents and courtships were supervised by a servant such as a nurse or a family member. Because Romeo and Juliet's families would never consent to this marriage, they must police their desire without the help of social conventions. This rapid engagement and marriage could be seen as more evidence of the backwards world created by their parent's feud.
Thus, Romeo and Juliet must make all of the arrangements for their marriage and police their own honor.
"unsatisfied..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
By "unsatisfied" Romeo could mean either the satisfaction of Juliet's vow or sexual satisfaction. While scholars have successfully read both interpretations into the line, what is most important to recognize in this exchange is that Juliet checks Romeo's haste. She forces him to wait until they can be married the following day until any satisfaction can occur. This is another instance in which Juliet teaches Romeo how to love and moves his poetic love into real love.
" swear not by the moon..." See in text (Act II - Scene II)
While Romeo has the impulse to use romantic poetic tropes, such as professing one's love using the cosmos, Juliet forces him to ground his love in something more concrete and realistic. In this way Juliet is able to refashion Romeo's love at first sight romantic discourse into a love that is more real.
Act II - Scene III
"mickle..." See in text (Act II - Scene III)
"Mickle" means large in bulk or size. The Friar is introduced to the audience as someone who knows a lot about herbs and plants. He goes on to talk about both curing and poisonous plants. In this way, the Friar's speech underscores the theme of good and bad, love and violence mixing, and inadvertently foreshadows the tragic end of the play.
Act II - Scene IV
"I will tell her as much..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Notice that the Nurse does not allow Romeo to finish his sentence and instead puts her own words in his mouth. This is an example of the theme of adult intervention in this play. Adults, such as the Nurse, the Friar, and Juliet's parents, continually meddle in the romance. This intervention can be seen as the way these characters shape Romeo and Juliet's love into what they want it to be rather than allowing it to be shaped by the couple.
"pin..." See in text (Act II - Scene IV)
Here, Mercutio moves from a metaphor about dueling to a metaphor about archery, using the word "pin" which means the center of an archery target. Images of archery invoke Cupid, the winged god who would make people fall in love by striking them with an arrow. Using these two metaphors, Mercutio once again mixes love and violence.
Act II - Scene V
"Romeo..." See in text (Act II - Scene V)
Notice how the Nurse delays telling Juliet the news. In this way she is able to inflate her own importance. As the messenger who holds the information, she is able to shape it. This is another instance in which an adult intervenes in Romeo and Juliet's love.
Act III - Scene V
"Hie hence, be gone, away!..." See in text (Act III - Scene V)
Though Romeo is teasing her in the preceding line, Juliet takes Romeo's threat of death seriously and stops pretending it is not morning. Notice how the theme of light and dark is used to symbolize the shift in Romeo and Juliet's relationship: while the night was a safe and playful space, the day is a serious and grim place where death exists.
Act V - Scene I
"kisses in my lips..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
This vision foreshadows the end of the play when a frantic Juliet searches for poison on Romeo's lips. With this foreshadowing, Romeo invokes the theme of love and death mixing.
Act V - Scene III
"Romeo..." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
The finals lines of this play mimic the structure of the end of a sonnet, an ABAB quatrain followed by a rhyming couplet. This could be read as a sense of closure in which the Prince offers the audience the story's moral. It would also be read as another instance in which a character tries to shape the story by adding their own narrative.
"That heaven finds means to kill ..." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
Like the Friar, the Prince blames higher powers for the deaths of the lovers. The Prince invokes the idea of fate in order to blame the deaths on the feud between the Capulets and Montagues: the tragedy is karma for their hatred. Notice that this is once again a retelling of what has happened. The many instances of retelling throughout this story ask the audience to focus on not what is being said but how it is being said.
"tedious tale...." See in text (Act V - Scene III)
The Friar narrates everything that the audience has just seen for the other characters on the stage. Yet because the Friar is telling the basic points of the story, it is once again a reminder to focus on how something is told rather than what is told. Like the Prologue, this is another instance in which the audience must check if they have paid attention to the right part of the story.