How does Shakespeare want you to feel about Romeo in Romeo and Juliet?

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Some time ago, there was a popular love song in which the singer asked if he should be a Romeo or a Heathcliff. These allusions indicated the archetypal Romantic lover or the dark, brooding lover (as the character Heathcliff is in Wuthering Heights). But while Romeo's name has become synonymous with the romantic lover who speaks poetically and loves passionately, there is more to the character of Romeo in Shakespeare's tragedy. 

  • Unbridled emotion

There is a maelstrom of emotions in Romeo so unbridled and impetuous that they engender violence and death. In Act I, Romeo's parents ask his friend Benvolio if he has seen their son; Lord Montague notes that Romeo has secluded himself in his chamber, locking the daylight out. Montague muses,

Black and portentous must thus humor prove
Unless good counsel may the cause remove. (1.1.)

Then, when Benvolio locates Romeo, the lover, rejected by Rosaline speaks in exaggerated language and in oxymorons:

...O brawling love! O loving hate! (1.1.)

After Benvolio tries to console his friend, he suggests that Romeo join him and friends as they steal into the masque held at the home of the Capulets. At first reluctant, Romeo agrees, only to find himself in love again, and now with a family enemy. Impetuously, he scales the walls of the Capulets so that he can, perhaps, gain a last glimpse of the beautiful Juliet. When she appears on her balcony, Romeo speaks aloud in the manner of courtly love--"The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars," etc. And, he dares to speak to her as Juliet thinks aloud, declaring his love for her, swearing by the "blessed moon."  Hearing his oath, the more cautious Juliet urges Romeo not to swear by the "inconstant moon":

I have no joy of this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too light the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say, "It lightens." (2.2.)

But, Romeo does not agree and leads Juliet to agree to marry him, whereupon he rushes to the cell of Friar Laurence, only to have the friar question such impetuous actions,

...what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? (2.3)

and urge caution, "Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast" (2.3). Finally, he warns Romeo, who dares "love-devouring death," that too often these

...violent delight have violent ends,
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder
Which as they kiss consume. (2.6)

  • Violence

Nevertheless, Romeo, who himself feels the presence of fate, does not heed the advice of the friar; and, so, he and Juliet are married, and soon Romeo finds himself confronting Tybalt who argues with Mercutio. As Tybalt threatens Mercutio with his sword, Romeo tries to intervene, but angers Tybalt further, and he kills Mercutio. As Benevolio urges him to run before the Prince discovers these deaths, Romeo again cries out against fate, "Oh, I am fortune's fool!" (3.1.)

Then, as fate would have it, a plague prevents Frair Laurence's messenger, Friar John, from reaching Romeo with an important missive and Fate does, indeed, contribute to Romeo's and Juliet's tragic deaths. Yet, more than anything else, Romeo's impulsive assumption that Juliet is dead and his headlong push to find her body and poison himself alongside her are the drastic, violent and passionate tragic acts that cause both his and Juliet's destruction.

Thus, Romeo, while passionately in love with Juliet, is so deeply flawed with his impulsive and violent nature that he acts as a force of fate and becomes the victim of this fate.