Romeo and Juliet
One of Shakespeare's most popular plays, Romeo and Juliet centers on the ill-fated love between the adolescent offspring of two leading, but warring, families of medieval Verona. Because of the feud between the families and the dictates of the day, which gave Juliet's father the right to promise her in marriage to any man of his choice, Romeo and Juliet's secret marriage is destined to bring tragedy both to the couple and to their families. Although critics disagree over the nature of the young couple's love for each other, most concur that themes of love and sexuality are central to the play's meaning. Scholars have focused on issues such as the nature and extent of Romeo and Juliet's love for each other, the social dictates and consequences of sexuality in medieval times, and the passage of the title characters from childhood to adulthood.
Many commentators have examined the nature of Romeo and Juliet's love for one another, concentrating on its brevity and the extent to which it was lustful. Ronald B. Bond states that Romeo's love for Juliet is ocular and is based only on satisfying his senses. Bond claims that even in death their love is "devoted to the flesh" and that the play is about "the intensity of youthful love." However, Marjorie Kolb Cox distinguishes between the Nurse's interpretation of the romance in terms of lust and Juliet's stress on abiding love, maintaining that Romeo and Juliet's love does not fit the Elizabethan Courtly Love model because it is realistic, normal, and attainable. Conversely, Leonora Leet Brodwin develops the argument that Shakespeare did indeed create a Courtly Love Tragedy.
Critics have also questioned whether the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues can be considered the primary cause of the disasters that befall the young couple. Many scholars have suggested that the feud is not the cause of their deaths but rather a symptom of larger problems within society that contribute to the young lovers' tragedy. Michael Rustin argues that the play is about the modern emotion of romantic sexual love and the inability of medieval society to deal with this emotion. Rustin also notes that medieval society in both Verona and England was based on patriarchal authority, and that both Romeo and Juliet were at odds with this structure. A. K. Nardo reminds the reader that violence and sex were linked in this society and that such an atmosphere certainly "does not nurture innocent lovers." Coppélia Kahn develops this theme, observing that Romeo's friends expect him to prove his manhood through violence and that the feud between the Capulets and Montagues gives him the opportunity to prove his loyalty to his father by killing members of the Capulet household. That he is divided between these two factions through his marriage to Juliet is the irresolvable problem which drives both of the lovers to their deaths.
The role of adolescence in Romeo and Juliet is another theme that has prompted significant debate among critics. Rustin attributes the play's continued popularity to Shakespeare's success at evoking the emotional turbulence of such a universal experience as adolescence. Adolescence is the transitional phase between childhood and adulthood when children break their attachment to their parents and form new bonds. Although medieval society did not recognize adolescence as a part of the life course, several commentators have agreed that it is Romeo and Juliet's attempt to pass through adolescence and the failure of their families to accept this effort that leads to their demise. Romeo and Juliet are both attempting to reach adulthood, but their actions are limited by the social conventions of the time. According to Kahn, Romeo becomes a man both through his defense of his family and through his sexual liaison with Juliet. Juliet, however, has no freedom of choice. Her role is reproductive, to produce an heir, and she must marry whomever her fathers chooses. Kahn contends that Juliet therefore has less freedom to experiment with new roles. But unlike her mother and her Nurse, Juliet acknowledges and expresses her sexuality apart from its reproductive aspects. Cox claims that neither Juliet's mother nor the Nurse are fully adult—a station in life which Juliet reaches through her relationship with Romeo—because they were denied the adolescence through which Juliet passes.