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Violent Delights, Violent Ends: Is "Romeo and Juliet" a Love Story?
One of the most popular plays ever written, Romeo and Juliet signifies for many the greatest love story ever told. Increasingly, however, the play is perceived more cynically, with many people dismissing it as a tale of reckless teenaged passion, even going so far as to label it a satire. Juliet’s young age, the brief time the pair know each other, and the double suicide all stack up against modern perceptions of love, and many people refuse to consider the tale of the star-crossed lovers as anything but satirical.
It is my belief, however, that Shakespeare does in fact intend to depict a love story. Many arguments that people have against this notion are quickly alleviated by a consideration of the historical context of the play- Verona, 14th century. One of the details that shock modern audiences is that Juliet is only 13 at the time of the play. To us, she would still be a child, too young to even contemplate serious romance, let alone marriage. However Lady Capulet’s lines to her daughter:
“by my count,
I was your mother much upon these years
That you are now a maid.”
reveal that Juliet’s own mother was already married with a child at thirteen. This, coupled with Paris’s line,“younger than she are happy mothers made,” indicates a cultural normalcy to young marriage. For Shakespeare and his audiences then, Juliet’s age would have been considered no hindrance to her ability to love. We are never told how old Romeo is, but it is safe to assume that he is younger than Juliet’s other suitor, County Paris, as Paris is already in possession of land and titles. In Elizabethan times, however, neither age gap would have appeared inappropriate or unseemly, and we must remember that when analyzing the play.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of Paris further propels my conviction that the love story is genuine as opposed to satirical. Paris, whilst apparently wealthy, handsome, and noble, is shown to be truly undesirable to Juliet, who says of Paris “proud can I never be of what I hate.” Furthermore, unlike Romeo, Paris is forced upon Juliet by her parents, shown when her father proclaims “lay hand on heart advise, an you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend .” This demonstrates that in terms of her relationship with Paris, she is treated as a possession or an object to be passed from father to husband. With Romeo, however, she assumes a position of power and equality, freed by her relationship with him, shown with the lines
Romeo: I would I were thy bird
Juliet: Sweet so would I, yet I would kill thee with much cherishing.”
In these lines, Shakespeare places Juliet in the position of power, the master, whilst Romeo wishes only to be her “bird.”
Another objection modern audiences often have to Romeo and Juliet’s love story is the brevity of their relationship. They met and married in less than two days, and committed suicide for each other a day later. By modern standards, such a whirlwind relationship is indeed ridiculous and not to be taken seriously. Romeo and Juliet, however, is not a modern play. Remember that Juliet was expected to marry Paris three days after meeting him, interacting with him far less than she had with Romeo. This again demonstrates the cultural normalcy of marriages that occurred after short periods of time. In actual fact, Romeo and Juliet had more than many couples of the day would have had, going so far as to kiss-several times- an action which was, in Elizabethan times, used to seal an act of betrothal. Moreover, that Romeo and Juliet got married itself indicates a more developed connection than one simply of lustful passion. During the balcony scene, Juliet tells Romeo:
"If that thy bent of love be honourable
Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow."
By agreeing to marry Juliet, therefore, Romeo proves that, even if he is motivated primarily by lust, he is prepared to make one of the most profound commitments of the era. To marry, for Shakespeare’s audiences, was to be united for life. Marriage sanctified a relationship, however lustful, and made it a sacred contract. It carried a different weight in Shakespeare’s time, and that is not to be ignored. A glance at the comedies demonstrates that marriage is the quintessential Shakespearean “happy ending.” Their relationship would have been considered wholly romantic by Elizabethan standards. Examining some of the many couples found in Shakespeare’s comedies also shows that Romeo and Juliet’s “love at first sight” would have been entirely plausible to Shakespearean audiences. Rosalind & Orlando, Viola & Orsino, Claudio & Hero, Celia &. Oliver, all the couples in Love’s Labour’s Lost- all these couples fell in love at first sight, all these couples were married- betrothed in the case of Love’s Labour’s Lost- by the end of their comedies, epitomising happy endings. To Elizabethan audiences, therefore, there was no reason to decide that Romeo and Juliet’s falling in love at first sight and getting married displayed anything but love.
Also consider that Romeo and Juliet take their marriage seriously after it occurs. Upon being banished from Verona, Romeo’s first reaction is:
"'Tis torture, and not mercy: heaven is here,
Where Juliet lives; and every cat and dog
And little mouse, every unworthy thing,
Live here in heaven and may look on her;
But Romeo may not"
He is scarcely more than a boy, yet his first reaction is not of fear for himself, but of near-madness at the notion of being parted from his wife. Juliet also proves steadfast in the marriage- despite her grief and anger at Tybalt’s death, she remains supportive of Romeo, crying: “Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?” She is furious when her Nurse suggests that Juliet take the easy way out and enter a bigamous marriage with Paris, declaring
"Is it more sin to wish me thus forsworn?
Or to dispraise my lord with that same tongue
Which she had praised him with above compare?"
For a 13 year-old-girl to exhibit such unwavering fidelity to a dangerous marriage under threatening circumstances would certainly require motivations more profound than foolish passion. Whilst their decisions and behaviors may not be the wisest, there can be no doubt that both Romeo and Juliet act out of love.
There is yet another manner in which comparing R+J to a Shakespearean comedy helps convince me that Shakespeare depicts a genuine love story. The comedy in question is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which does in fact contain scenes that are evident parodies of love- for example, when a love potion infatuated Titania with Bottom:
“Out of this wood do not desire to go.
Thou shalt remain here whether thou wilt or no.
I am a spirit of no common rate.
The summer still doth tend upon my state,
And I do love thee. Therefore go with me.
I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep
And sing while thou on pressèd flowers dost sleep.
And I will purge thy mortal grossness so
That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.—
Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mote, and Mustardseed!”
Notice how the passage is spoken entirely in rhyming couplets. Shakespeare never typically used passages of rhyming couplets in a romantic context. The fact that other characters to speak in rhyming couplets include Richard II and the witches from Macbeth suggests that rhyming couplets indicate something dark, twisted, or magical- something that, as with Titania and Bottom, is clearly not real love. Not so with Romeo and Juliet:
" Romeo: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
JULIET: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
ROMEO: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
JULIET: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
ROMEO: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
JULIET: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
ROMEO: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take. ”
The above exchange takes is their first interaction, and they speak a perfect sonnet together. A sonnet was the most romantic poetic form of the day, and one of Shakespeare’s finest crafts. A beautiful sonnet like the above is certainly not one that would likely be thrown away on a satirized pair of lustful teenagers. It is almost certainly evidence that Shakespeare is writing a real love story. Furthermore, that sonnet, coupled with lines such as:
“ROMEO: What shall I swear by?
JULIET: Do not swear at all;
Or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I'll believe thee.
ROMEO: If my heart’s dear love—”
reveal two important details. Firstly, that Romeo and Juliet communicate mostly in verse. Typically, Shakespeare uses verse to convey emotional and impassioned ideas, and by having Romeo and Juliet communicate in verse, he demonstrates their strong emotional bond. Evidence of this emotional bond is further supplied by the second detail- Romeo and Juliet complete each other’s iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter follows the rhythm of a human heartbeat- for Shakespeare to have two characters complete each other’s iambic pentameter is for him to indicate the deepest of emotional and spiritual bonds, the literal connection of two hearts into one. That is certainly not something to dismiss as a satirical mockery of adolescent lust.
Additionally, it is often said that Romeo and Juliet’s relationship is fueled only by a desire for rebellion against their parents. In any case, I believe it is a mistake to attribute a Romeo and Juliet’s primary motivation to rebellion. They are attracted to each other from their first meeting, and only afterwards does. Juliet find out that Romeo is a. Montage, exclaiming:
"My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown and known too late."
Her tone is regretful, and when in the balcony scene she exclaims:
“Tis but thy name that is my enemy,
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man.
O, be some other name!”
it is clear she does not want the difficulty and danger of falling for her enemy’s son. Likewise, Romeo doesn’t want trouble with the Capulets either. After his wedding to Juliet, he actively seeks to mend his relationship with her family, addressing her cousin Tybalt in a conciliatory manner:
"Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee
Doth much excuse the appertaining rage
To such a greeting: villain am I none;
I see thou know’st me not."
Of course, attempts at reconciliation fail spectacularly, but the couple are devastated- they are clearly more concerned about the fact that their families rivalry will endanger their own relationship than anything else.
Next, cast your eyes to the play’s prologue:
"Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend."
Shakespeare acknowledge’s the tragedy of the play- he blames fate for the deaths of the “star-cross’d lovers,” he blames their family feud. However, he never says anything to blame Romeo and Juliet themselves, leading me to believe that Shakespeare himself considered his work to be a true love story, to which his young lovers fell helpless victims.
A final, simple detail that may cause skepticism around the perception of Romeo and Juliet as a love story is sexism. A glance at the books of the Western Literary canon reveals that almost every one written by a woman- Pride & Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre- is referred to as a “romance.” Whilst all three books certainly have elements of love and romance, it is a mistake to deem “romance” the overarching genre, especially when they have so many other elements to them. Shakespeare, however, is arguably the greatest male writer that Britain has ever produced. Often, modern sensibilities and common logic are cited as reasons to disqualify the “love story’ in Romeo & Juliet from being accepted as legitimate, but it is my belief that this might simply be an unwillingness to believe that a great man could have set out to write a love story.
Oftentimes, people say that Romeo and Juliet are simply a pair of hormonal, lustful teenagers. My first response would be: so what? Even if that was true, why should that mean they aren’t also in love? Love, lust, and passion are not mutually exclusive concepts, quite the opposite. In depicting teenagers as creatures of passion and hormones, Shakespeare was being realistic. However the presence of lust does not indicate the absence of love, as clearly exhibited above. I don’t pretend to claim that Romeo and Juliet is a perfect love story- the small matter of a double suicide and some ridiculously convoluted schemes make it clear that it isn’t. They aren’t a couple to aspire to, and a at times their relationship is messy, reckless and immature. Shakespeare might well be warning us about the perils of teen romance and forbidden love, or the dangerous ways of fate. He’s also telling us a love story. The point is, Romeo and Juliet is a complex play, and to try to define it as just one thing would be reductionist and wrong. Rather I think it ought to be approached as a beautiful tragedy woven of many strands, one of which happens to be a real and heartbreaking love story.