What are some interesting and open-ended discussion questions related to themes in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet?
Romeo and Juliet traces the short-lived romance of the fated Romeo and Juliet. The "star-crossed lovers" (Prologue. Act I. 6) are destined to meet an unfortunate end due to the "ancient grudge" that feeds their family feud and that forbids them from having any kind of relationship. The fact that Juliet perceives that the feud is in name only, when she says to herself in Act II, scene ii, line 38, "'Tis but thy name that is my enemy," and which she therefore thinks will not interfere with their love, is a serious error of judgment and which, when coupled with Romeo's own poor judgment, will cost them their lives.
Romantic love is therefore a major theme in Romeo and Juliet as it contrasts with Romeo's initial infatuation with Rosaline without which Romeo would not have been at the Capulet ball in the first place. Discussion questions on this theme could be, for example:
1. Explain the difference between Romeo's all-consuming love for Juliet as opposed to his apparent lovesickness for Rosaline. A discussion on the difference between the two and his unrequited, inexplicable feelings for Rosaline could follow and why, on meeting Juliet and seeing the real difference for himself, Romeo's love becomes far more passionate, even dangerous. The very protection of his love results in circumstances that spiral out of control.
2. Discuss the way Shakespeare reveals how love is a strong, all-consuming emotion that exposes Romeo to feelings he is ill-prepared for. This discussion could explain how love can be painful and even fatal.
3. Explain the destructive forces of love versus hate. This answer could include aspects mentioned in the previous two questions but could also expand more on the unexplained reasons for the Capulet feud. The feud, one supposes, was designed to protect the families from each other but actually makes their connection stronger, increasing the emotions of love and hate making the reactions all the more devastating.
The role of women is another theme in the play and the expectation that Juliet will ultimately fulfill her family's wishes. Initially, her father seems to be a forward-thinking, modern (for his day) man, wanting his daughter to have her say; her mother too. However, it soon emerges that perhaps her parents only use this approach to give the illusion of choice and, as long as Juliet makes the "right" choice, all will be well. A discussion question could be:
How does Juliet perceive her duty to her family and her role in society? Furthermore, how does this affect her decision to marry Romeo? The expectations and restrictions placed on girls and women in Shakespeare's day, together with Juliet's conflicted emotions, the bad advice from Friar Lawrence and the unfairness of her parents' reactions can all be discussed here.
The role of fate is also a theme and a discussion question could involve the effects on the audience and the characters focusing on the audience's knowledge of the lovers' fate even before the play starts. Furthermore, it is fate, it seems, which brings them together initially despite all the obstacles. There is also a recognition by Romeo and Juliet that fate plays a part in their lives and, for example, Juliet's own reference to fate (or fortune): "O fortune, fortune! All men call thee fickle..." (III.v. 60) reveals that she is going to fight for Romeo because fate, she thinks, will favor her. The cruel twist of fate at the end, when Romeo dies needlessly, confirms that fate gets the last word.
Some open-ended questions pertaining to the themes in Romeo and Juliet that you might want to consider are:
How is love characterized in Romeo and Juliet?
How is love characterized as an overwhelming, even painful force?
What does Romeo and Juliet teach about loyalty?
How does loyalty come between Romeo and Juliet?
How does the desire to maintain masculine honor drive Romeo's actions?
Does Romeo and Juliet teach that love is a good excuse or poor excuse for dropping loyalties?
What violence is love responsible for in the play? Is love as equally responsible for violence as hate?
What societal rules do the Capulets and Montagues break?
What societal rules does Romeo break, apart from other Montagues?
What societal rules does Juliet break?
What societal rules does Friar Laurence break?
How is Romeo and Juliet a story of social institutions fighting against personal desires?