Exploring the different ways that Shakespeare presents the theme of love in the play ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare in the late 16th century. The play was set in romantic Italy and has various different themes explored by Shakespeare which portray his views on different aspects of life. The main theme that this essay will be focusing on is exploring the different types of love and how they run throughout the play.
Some of the other themes that run alongside love in the play are parental control, arranged marriages, revenge and prejudice. Shakespeare obviously thought that these were important issues in society in his era and was in a way very ahead of his time. Through this play he puts across his views on sexism not yet openly expressed in the community through Juliet, making her express what most women only thought about their marriage and lives being controlled by their parents.
“I look to like, if looking liking move;
But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.” Act 1 scene 3 Here she is completely obedient and willing only to go as far as her mother wants her to in a relationship. However meeting Romeo gives her the strength to disobey her parents because they arranged a marriage against her newly found feelings of love. “Now by Saint Peter’s Church and peter too,
He shall not make me there a joyful bride,”
“I will not marry yet, and when I do, I swear
It shall be Romeo,” act 3 scene 5
After this outburst she was disowned by her parents. Speaking like this was unheard of in Juliet’s time, a patriarchal society, where daughters were expected to obey their parent’s commands, whereas today, teenagers generally have more control over their lives and opinions. They often express themselves more openly, and as a result arguments between parents and their children are far more common.
Focusing on the theme of love, it is divided into categories, all of which are demonstrated between the characters of the play:
The first and most obvious type is Romantic love, explored by Romeo and Juliet. “This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flower when we next meet”
From act 2 scene 2 (p59) – the ‘balcony scene’ where Romeo and Juliet exchange vows of their undying love for each other. This quote shows Romeo and Juliet discovered love at first sight when they first met at Capulet’s party and they are determined that their love for each other will grow, comparing their love in a metaphor to a bud which will open in time into a beautiful flower. This is a classic example of Romeo and Juliet’s first real experience if romantic love enriched and made even more special with Shakespeare’s use of rhyming and metaphors and most famously, sonnets, which altogether give a more powerful and passionate description of love than when he describes his love for Rosaline (see courtly love).
The second most occurring type of love is the love between friends and family. Platonic love is especially portrayed by Romeo at the scene of Mercutio’s death. But Mercutio will have nothing of it and even in his dying words he curses both of the houses for hating each other. “A plague a’ both houses!” act 3 scene 1 (page 95) “Either thou or I, or both, must go with him.” (Act three scene 1. Page 97)
This is a perfect example of strong platonic love between Romeo and Mercutio, as ironically, Romeo, usually a gentle loving character is willing to kill Tybalt, a fighter by nature to do justice to the death of his friend.
One of the messages that Shakespeare was trying to put across with Romeo and his feelings for Mercutio, Juliet and her love for Romeo, the nurse and her love for Juliet is something that most of the characters have in common- their suffering because of love. The most extreme case being Romeo and Juliet dying for each other and down to the nurse regarding Juliet.
The relationship between Juliet and her nurse is one which relates to the another type of love, maternal. Although Juliet and lady Capulet obviously care about each other, as they are mother and child, the maternal love between them is much stronger. This is because Juliet spent her childhood bonding with her nurse who brought her up as her own after her own child died. Juliet’s mother does not spend as much ‘quality time’ with her daughter as is necessary to have a relationship as strong as that with the nurse.
However such a strong relationship was also part of the comedy, as in Shakespeare’s time, the actor who played the nurse would have been male, as all female characters were. As a result of this the character often made quite crude, rude jokes to give the audience a moment or two’s relief from the dramatic storyline. “Dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward, when thou hast more wit.”
Compared to our idea of comedy now, audiences today would probably still find amusement in female characters being played by men and sexual references made in the jokes. Despite all of this, the nurse’s character has a more serious message about the social classes in that time. Shakespeare obviously believed that lower class people such as the nurse, despite their status were also people with valid opinions and who were equally important in their own way. “Beshrew my very heart; I think you are happy in this second match, For it excels your first; or if it did not,
Your first is dead; or’t were as good as he were,
As living here and you no use of him.”
Here the nurse faces the decision of whether to do urge Juliet to go after her one true love, or to obey her parents and marry Paris. Here we see she has chosen the second option because her maternal love for Juliet is so strong, that she has to go against her heart and to what is best for Juliet in the long run. This heart-breaking decision shows the audience the other side of love- how sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. When asked if she speaks from her heart, she replies “And from my soul too.”
So powered by her maternal love, she obviously wants Juliet to think that is the best choice.
Courtly love was very common in Shakespeare’s time and also featured in the play. Loving from afar was very fashionable as it was satirical of those who were high in society. Shakespeare’s audience could probably relate to this concept and may even have found it slightly comical. Having studied the play in detail, today’s audience still found it comical, even though a youths mimicking role models still occurs in our society, people may be less aware of it. At the beginning of the play, Romeo swears he loves Rosaline, who he had never actually met.
“Alas, that love, so gentle in his view, should without eyes see pathways to his will! …O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, of nothing first created!
O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!”
Here, Romeo uses personification of love itself, putting across the message that love, however gentle, is blind. In an attempt to describe his feelings for Rosaline, Romeo spouts out lots of consecutive oxymorons, contradicting himself and giving the impression of confused love. However refering back to romantic love, his character changes from being ‘soppy’ when courtly love is displayed, to being passionate and willing to die for Juliet.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been interpreted in many different ways such as countless stage performances by different directors, several ballet performances, and musical scores to accompany them, the most famous and well known written by Prokofiev.
On top of all this, there were two film versions made; a fairly old fashioned one by Franco Zeffireli and 1968 and a much more recent one by Baz Luhrman in 1996 One particular scene that demonstrates how these directors visualised Shakespeare’s writing is Act 1 scene 4 in which Mercutio has a long speech including some seemly irrelevant description that is not explained. “Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’mind the fairies coachmakers.”
Franco Zefforelli’s interpretation was probably closest to how Shakespeare would have wanted it to be performed. He had Mercutio saying this in a very relaxed, joking, fashion, the audience around him not at all serious. Whereas Shakespeare probably would not have imagined what Baz Luhrmann did, which was to have Mercutio saying this while under the influence of drugs. To the modern audience, this would probably make more sense whereas the older interpretation was more suited to the older audience.
In conclusion, I think Shakespeare expressed and brought up some very important issues, especially love, and as before, was very ahead of his time. As well as doing this he has combined these moral issues in a dramatic and entertaining storyline, and his messages will live on in writing for many more years to come.