Before addressing themes in Romeo and Juliet, it is important to define exactly what I mean by theme. Often theme refers to the overriding message an author tries to convey through his or her work. For this article, however, theme refers to a unifying idea that is a recurrent element in a literary or artistic work. The following sections answer the question: What are the five major themes of Romeo and Juliet?
Love v. Lust
Romeo and Juliet is considered by most to be a love story, but are the lovers' actions motivated by love or lust?
- Romeo pines over Rosaline as the play begins and he complains, “She’ll not be hit with Cupid’s arrow. She hath Dian’s wit, / And, in strong proof of chastity well armed.” (I, i, 199-201). The mythological allusions to Cupid, the Roman god of (physical) love, and Diana, the Roman goddess of chastity, allude more to hormonal acceleration than true feelings of love.
- Romeo’s “love” for Juliet is love at first sight (I, v, 43-52), more a sign of infatuation than love. He loves her, in fact, based solely on her beauty before even meeting her. The same is true for Juliet.
- In Act II, scene 2, Romeo and Juliet agree to marriage. They’ve known each other for a little over an hour. And you wonder why fathers with beautiful daughters go bald?
- Both Romeo and Juliet act rashly–they marry quickly and they react quickly. Love is patient. Lust is always in a hurry.
The Role of Fate
The chorus begins the play by calling Romeo and Juliet “star-crossed lovers” (Prologue, line 6), but does fate or poor decisions cause their death?
- Bad luck and unfortunate coincidences abound: (1) Of all the people the illiterate Capulet servant could have asked to read the invitation list in Act I, scene 2, he chooses Benvolio, Mercutio, and Romeo; (2) Of all the hotties at the Capulet party, Romeo spots Juliet first; (3) It just so happens that the County Paris decides he wants to marry Juliet the same day Romeo meets her; (4) Friar John is detained and unable to deliver an important letter to Romeo in Mantua; (5) If Romeo would have waited one more minute, Juliet would have awakened and the two could have fled together.
- Bad choices and stupid decisions rule the day: (1) The two marry too quickly; (2) Romeo chooses to attend the enemy’s party; (3) Friar Lawrence gives some of the worst advice in the history of literature; (3) Friar Lawrence abandons Juliet in the tomb; (4) They both choose to take their own lives.
The Role of Women
This analysis of themes in Romeo and Juliet is intended to help you enjoy the play as you read and discuss it. The role of women at this time was to be good wives and mothers. They were to be obedient to their husbands and fathers. It is no surprise, therefore, that when Capulet determines Juliet must marry Paris, the women in the play shrink, with one exception.
- Juliet’s name deserves to go first in this play. Her society does not consider her opinion worthwhile. Her family turns on her. Her best friend, the nurse, turns on her, the Friar gives horrible advice. Juliet marries an unstable, moody boy. Yet, she faces her fears and moves forward, defying social customs. It is not until her life has completely lost meaning–after all, once it’s discovered she has been married against her family’s wishes, she would be ostracized by the community–that she kills herself.
- Lady Capulet - Her opinion means nothing. Once Lord Capulet’s mind is made up regarding Juliet’s marriage to Paris, it matters little what Lady Capulet thinks. Her role is to listen and obey.
- The Nurse - Her charge is to raise Juliet and take care of her. She does a poor job. She eventually shrinks back into her role as servant to the capriciousness of Lord Capulet, abandoning Juliet when her need is greatest.
Love vs. Hate
For such a great love story, there sure is a lot of hate in the play.
- The Capulets hate the Montagues and the Montagues hate the Capulets. We don’t know why. It’s possible the Capulets and Montagues don’t know why. It is this hatred that establishes tension and conflict.
- Tybalt is unreasonably hateful. The mere sight of Romeo at the Capulet party angers him to the point of murder. It is ironic that the party which brought the two lovers together sows the seeds that destroy their lives. Perhaps Shakespeare is showing the reader the paradoxical relationship between the two emotions.
- Does love conquer hate or does hate conquer love? Romeo’s love for Juliet and hopes for a blissful existence is destroyed by Tybalt’s hatred of Romeo, Mercutio’s hatred for Tybalt, and Romeo’s inability to make amends through love (see Act III, scene i, lines 64-5). The families' hatred forces the two to end their own lives. The love that prompted their rash actions, however, brings an end to the families' hatred. Once again, Shakespeare shows us the two emotions are connected.
The Passage of Time
Poets and lovers contend that time passes differently for those who are in love. Shakespeare’s play about literature’s most famous lovers compresses events that seem to last years into four days. Is Shakespeare showing us how differently time is measured for lovers? I’ll let you decide (with a little help).
- Day 1 - The morning begins with a Capulet/Montague brawl. The Capulet invitation is received in the afternoon. Romeo meets Juliet and falls in love in the evening.
- Day 2 - Day 2 begins with the balcony scene followed by Romeo’s visit to Friar Lawrence. The two are married in the afternoon, soon followed by Romeo killing Tybalt and being banished. Romeo spends the night with Juliet and Lord Capulet decides Juliet will marry Paris.
- Day 3 - Romeo leaves at dawn. Juliet is informed of her impending marriage to Paris. Juliet runs to Friar Lawrence for advice. Juliet drinks the potion that night.
- Day 4 - Wedding preparations last throughout the morning. Juliet is found dead. Romeo hears the news and buys poison from an apothecary. At night, Romeo kills Paris at Juliet’s tomb and drinks poison. Juliet awakes and stabs herself.
- Day 5 - The Montagues and Capulets learn of the secret marriage, the double suicide, and end their feud.
- Shakespeare, William. Prentice Hall Literature, Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes. Romeo and Juliet. Saddle River New Jersey: Pearson Education. 2002. 768-877.
- Trent Lorcher’s 13 years of teaching experience.
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