One of Shakespeare's most popular plays, Romeo and Juliet continues to attract the attention of scholars interested in the ill-fated romance of its two young lovers. Set in medieval Italy, the drama details the clandestine love of Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, members of two feuding Veronese families. Because of this feud and the dictates of the day, which gave Juliet's father the right to promise her in marriage to any man of his choosing, Romeo and Juliet's secret marriage culminates in tragedy for both the couple and their families. Historical commentary on the work has focused on a variety of stylistic and design issues, and particularly its status as a successful tragedy. More recent scholarship has carried on another principal line of inquiry by concentrating on the tragic love between Romeo and Juliet. Attempts have been made by critics of the latter half of the twentieth century to understand Shakespeare's representation of love in Romeo and Juliet, especially in its social contexts. The significant juxtaposition of sexual desire and death has also been studied by scholars, as have the roles of language and gender in constructing the love affair.
Contemporary critics have offered numerous approaches to the passionate romance of Romeo and Juliet, assessing this subject as the central element in the play. Geoffrey Hutchings (1977) considers love as a force beset by social predicaments, human foibles, and the vicissitudes of fortune. He emphasizes Romeo's role as a sensitive, at times ridiculous, lover whose shared passion with Juliet is thwarted by the lovers' isolation and leads to disaster. R. Stamm (1986) examines the pivotal scene of Romeo and Juliet's first meeting, which Shakespeare presents in the form of a love sonnet. In addition to considering the importance of the words spoken during this encounter, Stamm highlights Shakespeare's use of gesture and touch to reveal the magnitude of passion between Romeo and Juliet. Barbara L. Estrin (1981) portrays the young couple as dreamers whose love stands as an ideal vision that awakens the self and transcends death.
The related nature of death and desire has been further investigated by critics of Romeo and Juliet who maintain that the work is a dramatic depiction of the Liebestod myth—a juxtaposition of romantic passion and death. Contradicting the point of view of many recent commentators who consider the deaths of Romeo and Juliet ironic or somehow justly deserved, William C. Carroll (1981) contends that the ending of the play—in which golden statues of the now-dead lovers are erected by their apparently contrite families—reveals the triumph of their passionate love over death. Lloyd Davis (1996) considers the rhetoric and poetic discourse of desire in Romeo and Juliet. According to Davis, the idealized romance in this tale of desire unfulfilled reveals itself to be tragically fatal, furthering the Renaissance theme of sex and death as inextricably intertwined.
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