Romeo and Juliet (Vol. 33)
Romeo and Juliet
See also Romeo and Juliet Criticism (Volume 33), and Volumes 51, 65, 87, 76.
One of Shakespeare's most popular plays, Romeo and Juliet centers on the ill-fated love between the adolescent offspring of two leading, but warring, families of medieval Verona. Because of the feud between the families and the dictates of the day, which gave Juliet's father the right to promise her in marriage to any man of his choice, Romeo and Juliet's secret marriage is destined to bring tragedy both to the couple and to their families. Although critics disagree over the nature of the young couple's love for each other, most concur that themes of love and sexuality are central to the play's meaning. Scholars have focused on issues such as the nature and extent of Romeo and Juliet's love for each other, the social dictates and consequences of sexuality in medieval times, and the passage of the title characters from childhood to adulthood.
Many commentators have examined the nature of Romeo and Juliet's love for one another, concentrating on its brevity and the extent to which it was lustful. Ronald B. Bond states that Romeo's love for Juliet is ocular and is based only on satisfying his senses. Bond claims that even in death their love is "devoted to the flesh" and that the play is about "the intensity of youthful love." However, Marjorie Kolb Cox distinguishes between the Nurse's interpretation of the romance in terms of lust and Juliet's stress on abiding love, maintaining that Romeo and Juliet's love does not fit the Elizabethan Courtly Love model because it is realistic, normal, and attainable. Conversely, Leonora Leet Brodwin develops the argument that Shakespeare did indeed create a Courtly Love Tragedy.
Critics have also questioned whether the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues can be considered the primary cause of the disasters that befall the young couple. Many scholars have suggested that the feud is not the cause of their deaths but rather a symptom of larger problems within society that contribute to the young lovers' tragedy. Michael Rustin argues that the play is about the modern emotion of romantic sexual love and the inability of medieval society to deal with this emotion. Rustin also notes that medieval society in both Verona and England was based on patriarchal authority, and that both Romeo and Juliet were at odds with this structure. A. K. Nardo reminds the reader that violence and sex were linked in this society and that such an atmosphere certainly "does not nurture innocent lovers." Coppélia Kahn develops this theme, observing that Romeo's friends expect him to prove his manhood through violence and that the feud between the Capulets and Montagues gives him the opportunity to prove his loyalty to his father by killing members of the Capulet household. That he is divided between these two factions through his marriage to Juliet is the irresolvable problem which drives both of the lovers to their deaths.
The role of adolescence in Romeo and Juliet is another theme that has prompted significant debate among critics. Rustin attributes the play's continued popularity to Shakespeare's success at evoking the emotional turbulence of such a universal experience as adolescence. Adolescence is the transitional phase between childhood and adulthood when children break their attachment to their parents and form new bonds. Although medieval society did not recognize adolescence as a part of the life course, several commentators have agreed that it is Romeo and Juliet's attempt to pass through adolescence and the failure of their families to accept this effort that leads to their demise. Romeo and Juliet are both attempting to reach adulthood, but their actions are limited by the social conventions of the time. According to Kahn, Romeo becomes a man both through his defense of his family and through his sexual liaison with Juliet. Juliet, however, has no freedom of choice. Her role is reproductive, to produce an heir, and she must marry whomever her fathers chooses. Kahn contends that Juliet therefore has less freedom to experiment with new roles. But unlike her mother and her Nurse, Juliet acknowledges and expresses her sexuality apart from its reproductive aspects. Cox claims that neither Juliet's mother nor the Nurse are fully adult—a station in life which Juliet reaches through her relationship with Romeo—because they were denied the adolescence through which Juliet passes.
G. Blakemore Evans (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: An introduction to Romeo and Juliet, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 1-48.
[In the following excerpt, Evans provides an overview of the play's sources, structure, style, characters, and tragic qualities with an emphasis on the theme of love.]
SOURCES AND STRUCTURE
The general type of story represented by Romeo and Juliet has its roots in folklore and mythology. Best described as a separation-romance, it shows obvious analogies with the stories of Hero and Leander, Pyramus and Thisbe, Tristan and Isolde, and with later medieval works like Floris and Blanchefleur and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde.1 Chaucer's poem leaves its mark strongly on Shakespeare's principal source for the play, Arthur Brooke's Romeus and Juliet, and, independently perhaps, on Shakespeare's play itself.
The earlier history of the Romeo and Juliet story has been treated in detail by a number of critics,2 but since there is no persuasive evidence that Shakespeare knew the Italian or French versions at first hand,3 we may limit our discussion to the two English versions:4 Arthur Brooke's long poem, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562); and William Painter's 'Rhomeo and Julietta' included in volume II (1567) of his widely known...
(The entire section is 18214 words.)
Leonora Leet Brodwin (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: "The Classic Pattern of Courtly Love Tragedy," in Elizabethan Love Tragedy: 1587-1625, New York University Press, 1971, pp. 39-64.
[In the following excerpt, Brodwin discusses Shakespeare 's presentation of Courtly Love in the play and speculates on the allegorical meaning of the love between Romeo and Juliet as they "embrace the love-death. "]
Shakespeare's tragic masterpiece of Courtly Love was written in 1595,1 when the vogue of courtly sonneteering was at its height. In considering "the fearful passage of their death-mark'd love,"2 critics like E. E. Stoll have been at considerable pains to show that the love of Romeo and Juliet was the normal product of youthful innocence, that "not because there is anything wrong with them do the youth and maiden perish but only because 'love is strong as death,' and fate unfriendly."3 Granville-Barker has written with greater insight into the specific characteristics of the youth and maiden which have made their love "strong as death," but he, too, misses the fuller implications of this love.4 At the opposite extreme is Franklin Dickey who argues, from the vantage point of the Renaissance moralists, that Romeo and Juliet are afflicted with a love disease the evil consequence of which is death: "fortune has operated here to punish sin and … this...
(The entire section is 13569 words.)
Marjorie Kolb Cox (essay date 1976)
SOURCE: "Adolescent Processes in Romeo and Juliet," in The Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 63, No. 3, Fall, 1976, pp. 379-92.
[In the following essay, Cox argues that Romeo and Juliet is "a story of the impact of adolescence, a process which each of the principal and secondary characters must deal with in himself or in those close to him," rather than a story of star-crossed lovers ruled by fate.]
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is commonly considered to be the story of two lovers caught in circumstances beyond their control: the feuding of their two houses. The play has been criticized as not tragic in an Aristotelian sense on the grounds that the outcome does not grow out of flaws in the main characters but results from fortuitous happenings. The thesis of this paper is that Romeo and Juliet is more profoundly a story of the impact of adolescence, a process which each of the principal and secondary characters must deal with in himself or in those close to him. The tragedy is indeed not Aristotelian in the strictest sense, not a result of pathology in Romeo or Juliet, but it is close in that it grows not out of fortuitous circumstances but out of the difficulty all the characters have in dealing with adolescent processes.
M. D. Faber4 sees the play as the story of the inability of the ruling...
(The entire section is 18801 words.)
Language And Imagery
Philip Edwards (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: "The Declaration of Love," in Shakespeare's Styles: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Muir, Cambridge University Press, 1980, pp. 39-50.
[In the following excerpt, Edwards examines the inadequacy of words to express love and the central characters' distrust of language.]
Romeo. Ah, Juliet, if the measure of thy joy
Be heaped like mine, and that thy skill be
To blazon it, then sweeten with thy breath
This neighbour air, and let rich music's
Unfold the imagined happiness that both
Receive in either by this dear encounter.
Juliet. Conceit, more rich in matter than in
Brags of his substance, not of ornament.
They are but beggars that can count their
But my true love is grown to such excess,
I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth.
(Romeo and Juliet, II,vi,24-34)
This essay examines Shakespeare's use of a very ordinary idea: that in expressing love words may be inadequate or treacherous. There are several occasions in the plays when there is a rather formal declaration of love, or a...
(The entire section is 16710 words.)
Robert Carl Johnson (essay date 1969)
SOURCE: "Four Young Men," in The University Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, December, 1969, pp. 141-47.
[In the essay below, Johnson analyzes Benvolio, Tybalt, Paris, and Mercutio, focusing on their characterization, their roles in precipitating the tragedy, and their perception of events in the play.]
The cornerstone of A. C. Bradley's theory of tragedy is that "the calamities and catastrophe follow inevitably from the deeds of men, and that the main source of these deeds is character."1 A problem with Romeo and Juliet that critics often raise is that it is too much a tragedy of fate, that the star-crossed lovers are doomed from the start.
Shakespeare, however, has developed his play so that what at first glance might seem to be the workings of chance are instead the results of character. Besides Romeo Shakespeare distinguished between four other young men who contribute to the theme and plot of the play through their perception of what is happening. In all four cases the character's perception or understanding is limited, although occasionally each demonstrates keen insight.
Their understanding of the events, then, reflects upon the understanding of the action by the central characters. It is, of course, Romeo's limited knowledge that precipitates the tragedy.
It seems clear...
(The entire section is 14234 words.)
Bergeron, David M. "Sickness in Romeo and Juliet." CLA Journal XX, No. 3 (March 1977): 356-64.
Argues that the numerous images of unmitigated sickness in Romeo and Juliet form a pattern that reinforces the definition of the play as a tragedy.
Berman, Ronald. "The Two Orders of Romeo and Juliet." Moderna Sprak LXIV, No. 3 (1970): 244-52.
Argues that Romeo and Juliet is not a Christian play but an existential tragedy.
Carroll, William C. '"We Were Born to Die': Romeo and Juliet." Comparative Drama 15, No. 1 (Spring 1981): 54-71.
Remarks on the persistent association between birth, death, and love in Shakespeare's play.
Chang, Joseph S. M. J. "The Language of Paradox in Romeo and Juliet." Shakespeare Studies 3 (1967): 22-42.
Contends that Shakespeare's primary concern in the play is not love, rather, he exploits a situation centered on love to explore such themes as time, death, and immortality.
Cribb, T. J. "The Unity of Romeo and Juliet." Shakespeare Survey 34 (1981): 93-104.
Contends that Romeo and Juliet is "a unity founded not on 'poetry' … [or] realism … but on a particular set of values or ideas principally embodied in the lovers."
Draper, John W. "Patterns of Style in Romeo and Juliet." In Stratford to...
(The entire section is 997 words.)