Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights
As you read, look for the themes and elements described below.
Courtly love: This term describes a set of attitudes and rules that originally governed courtship among upper-class citizens of Europe in the Middle Ages. Certain patterns of courtly love lasted into the literature of the Renaissance; they appear in Shakespeare's sonnets as well as this play. Standard topics of courtly love include the following:
The idealization of the beloved, especially through images of light and dark:
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she…
The agony of the lover—he or she cannot live without the beloved:
'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…
The emphasis on innocence and purity, especially when contrasted with more “worldly” love affairs. Unlike the Nurse, whose language is bold and suggestive, Juliet thinks of love as “holy,” and discusses it in terms of saints and pilgrims in her conversations with Romeo.
Fate: The Prologue tells the reader that in the play, “A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.” Fate is a powerful force in Romeo and Juliet, and the main characters are highly aware of it. Romeo, for instance, has premonitions of his own death several times.
Social conflict: Contrasting with the idea that the young lovers are destined to die is a protest against the cycle of violence that leads to their tragic ends. Verona is the place “where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” The play opens with a brawl between servants of the two households, and reaches its climax when in a bloody duel that leaves members of both families dead. In the final act, the Prince sadly remarks upon the death of the young people by saying that the inter-family violence was bound to have terrible consequences.
Because of the long history of hostility between the two families, Romeo and Juliet suffer intense pressure. The conflict between individuals and the larger groups of which they are a part (family, church, citizenry) is another important element in the play.
Language and poetry: This is one of Shakespeare's early plays, but we can already see in it his fascination with language and the meaning of words. Juliet wonders about the arbitrary power of words when she asks why Romeo's name must keep him away from her. Other characters trick and tease one another with puns and wordplay.