In Romeo and Juliet, how does Shakespeare show love at first sight, and is it effective and believable?

Whether or not Romeo and Juliet actually fall in love at first sight is personal opinion, but what Shakespeare does effectively portray is the way people, especially teenagers, become easily infatuated with someone whom they've never met based on appearances alone. Shakespeare shows their attraction when they first lay eyes on each other at the Capulet ball by having Romeo express his admiration for Juliet's beauty as better than any other he's seen, and vice versa. It is true that both feel they have fallen in love.

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I think Shakespeare wants the audience to believe this is love at first sight. After all, in the first lines of the play, they are referred to as the "star-crossed lovers," meaning they were fated to meet and fall helplessly in love. And the action he creates transpires over a handful of days; at the end of these few days, Romeo and Juliet are willing to die for each other. Thus, there does seem to be some credence for the "love at first sight" analysis.

Romeo certainly proclaims his love for Juliet as soon as he beholds her:

Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night. (I.v.55-56)

He immediately forgets his misery over Rosaline, which has plagued him for the entire play thus far, and becomes much more hopeful with this immediate change in demeanor. When he finds out that Juliet is a Capulet, he bemoans, "My life is my foe’s debt" (I.v.129).

Juliet is willing to be kissed by Romeo, teasing him playfully and inviting further affection. When he approaches her at her balcony just after the party, he hears her reflecting on their seemingly impossible predicament:

Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet. (II.ii.36-38)

Already, she is willing to give up her entire family if Romeo swears that he loves her. That's a fairly convincing statement.

Is it all effective? I think so. It's easy to fall into this whirlwind romance, hoping against hope that this will end well for this hopelessly-in-love young couple—yet knowing that it won't based on the predictions in the prologue. We cheer them on and then feel their collective pain at all the wrong turns in their plot, such as Tybalt's unfortunate death and Romeo's failure to receive that much-needed letter about Juliet's death not actually being real. I think the audience wants it to somehow all work out for them, meaning that Shakespeare does construct an effective love-at-first-sight portrayal.

Is it believable? Probably not. After all, Juliet isn't yet fourteen, and there are precious few people willing to get married after knowing each other for four days. But we suspend our sense of a believable situation all the time in the name of entertainment. Part of what makes a great story (whether we read it or watch it) is that it provides a wonderful escape from the realities of life. Their story may not be very believable, but Shakespeare creates characters whom we care about and a conflict that is still relevant over 400 years later.

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I am not sure I would call what Romeo and Juliet feel as love, at least not at first. For Romeo, there is certainly a great deal of attraction at first sight. He does not know who Juliet is or anything about her personality, but he immediately remarks on her physical beauty by saying,

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear—
Beauty too rich for use, for Earth too dear (1.5.51–54).

Right away, Romeo feels himself to be very attracted to Juliet's beauty, and this compels him to ask if he has ever loved before now. He seems, to me, to be equating an appreciation for Juliet's appearance with love. Perhaps he has never been in love before and does not really know the different between love and lust. How can he truly be in love with her if he knows nothing about her beyond what she looks like?

As for Juliet, she responds quite positively to Romeo's flirtation. He is good looking, a little older than she is, and obviously very interested in her. He flatters her, calling her a "holy shrine" and kissing her (1.5.105). It does not strain credulity to believe that she is attracted to him as well. Again, because I do not know his personality, likes or dislikes, and so on, I hesitate to call this love, but Shakespeare captures, believably, the way it feels to experience an attraction like this.

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When Romeo first catches sight of Juliet at the Capulet ball, he refers to her as the brightest thing in the room and compares her beauty to a "snowy dove trooping with crows." He also asks himself, "Did my heart love till now?" and calls his eyes liars in the line, "forswear it, sight!" He further declares, "I ne'er saw true beauty till this night" (Act I, Scene 5). In other words, just like with Rosaline, Romeo is equating feelings of love with lust, or an acknowledgement of beauty, and it is these lines that portray Romeo as falling in love at first sight. We must remember that Romeo is very young in this play; he is most likely in his late teens or early 20s. As people grow older, they are more likely to begin placing value on other character traits, such as personality and wisdom, as well as valuing beauty. Older people can even find a person beautiful because of their personality. But at a young age, young men are likely to do as Romeo does, and feel like they have fallen in love with a beautiful girl, simply because she is beautiful. Therefore, it is not a stretch for Shakespeare to portray Romeo as loving with his eyes, rather than with his heart. This is actually a very true and wise portrayal of human nature on Shakespeare's part.

Likewise, it is a true account to portray Juliet as falling in love with Romeo so quickly. Shakespeare also depicts Juliet as falling in love with Romeo at first sight based on looks, in the one simple Chorus line, "Alike bewitched by the charm of looks (Act 2, Prologue). However, for Juliet, more than just looks has governed her attraction. Romeo was very forward with her at the party; he grabbed her hand and even kissed her twice. We must remember that Juliet is even younger than Romeo--her nurse states that she is only thirteen--therefore, she has never been treated by a man like this before. She has never been flirted with and she has certainly never been kissed before. It is very easy to understand that the hormones released from such flirtation and kissing can easily make a person feel like they are in love. Hence, it is also not a stretch of the imagination to see Juliet so quickly fall in love with Romeo.

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