How is Juliet different from the conventional Petrarchan lady in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet?
Petrarch, a fourteenth-century Italian poet, was famous for his creation of what we call the “Petrarchan lover.” The classic Petrarchan lover puts the woman he loves on a pedestal (meaning he looks at her in an idealized way—she can do no wrong) and never actually has a relationship with her. She is unattainable.
In William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet we see some of the Petrarchan qualities. Juliet is indeed idealized by Romeo, as we see when he watches her in the window in act II, scene II:
O, speak again, bright angel, for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o’er my head,
As is a winged messenger of heaven
Unto the white-upturned wondering eyes.
In comparing Juliet to an “angel” Romeo is idealizing her. No one can really live up to such a comparison; none of us are really angels, but we often feel this way about someone when we are in the early stages of being smitten or in love.
Unlike the Petrarchan lady, however, Juliet also idealizes the male who is pursuing her. In the same scene, before she realizes that she is being watched by Romeo, she says:
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
With that title.
At this point, after having just met Romeo at the masked ball, Juliet perceives Romeo as the picture of “perfection.”
Finally, unlike the Petrarchan lady, Juliet is not unattainable. She is more than willing to commit to Romeo, and in fact does so in act II, scene VI, when they are married by Friar Laurence.