One of the most prominent features of Romeo and Juliet is the love the two title characters have for one another. In a number of ways the lovers' passion for each other demonstrates the practice of "courtly love." Identifying some of the aspects of courtly love can also highlight the similarities between the relationship between Romeo and Juliet and modern youthful romantic relationships. Courtly love flourished during the Middle Ages and influenced Renaissance literature. Traditionally, the system of courtly love defined a code of behavior for lovers. Under this system, love is seen as illicit, sensual, and marked by emotional suffering and anguish. Typically, the lover falls in love at first sight and remains in agony until he is sure his love is returned. Then, he is inspired to perform great deeds to demonstrate the depth of his love. Additionally, the lovers vow their faithfulness to each other and promise to keep their love a secret. The love between Romeo and Juliet follows this pattern. The two fall in love at first sight, they meet secretly and promise to conceal their relationship, and they vow their everlasting faithfulness to each other. Modern teenagers in love similarly may feel the need to meet secretly, to hide their relationships from their parents, and may often feel that their parents do not or would not understand the depth of their feelings toward their girlfriends or boyfriends.
An additional hurdle faced by lovers in Shakespeare's time was the fact that many marriages were arranged by parents who had economic and social considerations in mind. Romance and personal choice in the matter were often ignored and could cause conflict between parents and young people. Juliet's parents initially hope that Juliet will express interest in marrying Paris. When she does not, they become angered and verbally abusive. For modern readers who are unfamiliar with the concept of arranged marriages, knowing that such arrangements were common in Shakespeare's time may help students to better understand the actions of Romeo, Juliet, and their parents. However, for many modern students, the idea of arranged marriages is not an unfamiliar one, as the concept is a part of many religions.
Another prominent feature of the play is its presentation of the destructiveness of endless feuding between groups of people forced to live near each other. In such self-perpetuating feuds, new insults are always being made and old ones always being avenged. The score never seems to be settled, unless perhaps something catastrophic occurs that forces the feuding people to look seriously at themselves and their responsibility toward their families and each other. Tybalt, for example, grows enraged at the sound of Romeo's voice at the Capulet party and wants to fight him immediately. Although Lord Capulet restrains Tybalt at the party, he does not stop his wife's screams for revenge after Tybalt's death. Only after suffering the heavy, irreparable losses of their children do Capulet and Montague join hands at the end of the play. Such tensions are also common in modern times and have been dramatically presented by film makers. For example, the 1961 film, West Side Story, is loosely based on Romeo and Juliet. In the film, the animosity that Shakespeare depicted between the Capulets and Montagues, referred to by the Chorus as an "ancient grudge" (Prologue, 1.3), is represented as gang rivalry and ethnic hatred between the family and friends of the two main characters, Tony and Maria. Although Tony and Maria attempt to overcome these obstacles, they meet the same tragic fate as Romeo and Juliet. Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version of the story is perhaps more familiar to modern readers than is West Side Story. The 1996 film, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, is set in present-day urban California, but uses Shakespeare's original language.
Bibliography and Further Reading
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Brown, John Russell. Discovering Shakespeare: A New Guide to the Plays. New York:...
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