What does Romeo and Juliet teach us about identity?
The play shows that the most important part of one's identity is how one feels and behaves and has nothing to do with one's name or what one is called. Consider how easily Juliet is willing to give up her identity as a Capulet. She says,
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
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. (2.2.36-39)
Even if Romeo is unwilling to give up his identity as a Montague, Juliet is quite willing, even eager, to give up her name and status and family because it is her love that she feels to be more a part of her than any of those things. Further, she argues that "Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, / Retain that dear perfection which he owes / Without that title" (2.2.48-50). In other words, she is not in love with Romeo's name -- he could be called anything and she would still love him because his "dear perfection" has nothing to do with his name.
When Romeo reveals himself, he agrees that words form no part of his identity and that if he had his name written, he "would tear the word" (2.2.62). He goes on to discuss his love of Juliet and how it helped him to climb the high walls, how it would protect him from her murderous kinsmen even if they found him in her garden. The only thing that will satisfy him is "Th' exchange of [her] love's faithful vow for [his]" (2.2.134). It is their love for one another that gives them identity; they are both willing to sacrifice everything else by which they are known (family, status, Verona, even LIFE) in order to do justice to the love that they feel. Thus, it would seem that who and what one loves, and one's loyalty and commitment to that love, are crucial to identity, more crucial than just about anything else.
In The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, the enduring feud between the Montagues and the Capulets is the direct cause of the deaths of Romeo and Juliet and other characters in the play. The family feud is a long-standing tradition that has no explanation except for one of an unexamined and unquestioned history. The play teaches audience members to this day that history does not have to determine identity, even when that history is a personal and meaningful family history.
History must always be examined and critiqued in order for it to be educational. Shakespeare does not explain the origins of the feud of the Montagues and the Capulets, so the two families wage a private war for no identifiable reason except for the fact that it has always been so. This absence of explanation is as meaningful as the details of the romance between the two young people in the play as it echoes a long societal pattern of going along with the status quo simply because it exists. Romeo and Juliet refuse to follow the status quo, and they seek to develop their own unique identity as a couple, and for this rebellion, they pay with their lives.
In Romeo and Juliet, the characters are judged on account of their names. The Montagues hate the Capulets, and vice versa. It doesn't matter what a person is really like, only what their name is.
However, the characters of Romeo and Juliet challenge this. Their love shows that they do not connect identity with name. In one of Shakespeare's most famous quotes, Juliet says the following:
"What's in a name?/a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
This demonstrates that identity is a result of define charactersitics about the person himself, and not tied into the name - or even the background - of that person.