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What does Romeo and Juliet teach us about identity?

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Romeo and Juliet teaches us several lessons about identity. One lesson is that people must sometimes consider the identities that society has established for them and then break free from those presumptions in order to build identities that are more constructive.

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Romeo and Juliet teaches audiences that sometimes people construct their identities based on what the world tells them they should be—and sometimes it is necessary to break free from those chains and build completely new identities.

When the play opens, Juliet is a thirteen-year-old girl whose marriage is being arranged without her voice. Juliet thus understands that her desires aren't important, as she is basically property that will be transferred from her father to a man of his choosing. Paris even jokes with Lord Capulet that younger girls than Juliet become mothers, making light of her sexual innocence and carelessly overlooking the fact that a pregnancy for such a young girl could prove quite dangerous in this societal context. Juliet is thus told that her identity ultimately belongs to the men around her, and she can submit to this patriarchal structure or be cast out from the Capulet family.

Romeo is told that he must hate the Capulets because he is a Montague. He is also rejected by Rosaline, made to feel that he isn't worthy of a beautiful woman. Romeo bases his identity in his shortcomings, and he is thus quite despondent at the play's opening.

When Romeo and Juliet find each other, the two forge a new identity together. They learn to throw off the hatred of their families, recognizing quickly what their families cannot: individuals cannot be judged based on the transgressions of their families. Juliet finds that she is strong and competent enough to choose a husband whom she loves. She finds that she can plan a wedding and fake her own death in intentional efforts to choose her own destiny. Romeo finds that his identity is more than a man who has been rejected and taught to hate the Capulets. He learns that he is capable of forgiveness and that he can be loved intensely.

Romeo and Juliet quickly realize after meeting each other that their beliefs about their identities have been misconstrued, and they forge new identities together that are constructive to character growth.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Examine the idea of identity in Romeo and Juliet.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare shows that identity can be reconstructed through our experiences with other people.

When the play begins, the two young lovers stand on opposite sides of a divide: Capulets versus Montagues. They have both accepted the identities of their families, never having reason to question the hatred they are supposed to carry for every individual who bears the opposing last name.

At the party, the Romeo spies Juliet and falls in love with her without knowing her last name:

Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night. (I.v.55–56)

Likewise, Juliet flirts with Romeo, even showing her spunk in critiquing the way Romeo kisses her. Quickly, however, the two learn of the other's true identity and immediately realize the complication. Romeo laments,

Is she a Capulet?
O dear account! My life is my foe’s debt. (I.v.128–129)

Juliet says that she'd rather die than marry anyone besides this stranger she's just met (touching on irony and foreshadowing here), and when she learns of his true identity, she reflects,

My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me,
That I must love a loathèd enemy. (I.v.150–154)

In spite of their initial reactions to a sense of betraying the identity given to them by their families, Romeo and Juliet learn to forge their own way. They realize that they cannot simply turn away from the passion they have discovered in each other, and Juliet reflects,

O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet. (II.ii.44–46)

She understands that she is more than the identity of her parents, and so is Romeo. The pair learn to independently form their own opinions and relationships, which extend across boundaries of social acceptance.

In the end, the link to their families' identities costs the young lovers their lives, but the play ends on a note of hope that, through their love, they have helped to heal some of the fractured relationships that have existed between their families' lines of social identity.

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Examine the idea of identity in Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet's love transcends the kinship identity with which each has been saddled and which has thus far defined the contours of their friendships and affections. Each identifies as, respectively, a Montague or a Capulet, but they are both willing to throw that identity aside to embrace the identity of lover and spouse.

If they had been true to their kinship identities, both Romeo and Juliet would have recoiled from each other when finding out that each was from the hated rival house. Yet their identities as Montagues or Capulets become subordinate to their individual identities as two young people in love and attracted to one another.

The love the two feel for each other emphasizes that the feud dividing the families is ridiculous. Romeo speaks truly when he says pejorative labels can't obscure reality: truth will win out over rhetoric. Juliet states this memorably in a famous utterance:

What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.

Shakespeare seems to be implying that love provides a more powerful form of identity than hate. The love Romeo and Juliet felt for each other and the powerful love and grief the families feel for the dead lovers work far more effectively to heal the feud than the Prince's threats of death and banishment, just as Romeo and Juliet's love for each other was far more powerful than their familal identities as bitter enemies.

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Examine the idea of identity in Romeo and Juliet.

I think that identity is seen in the drama as a social construct that individuals must actively combat in order to discover their true sense of self.  This is operating on the premise that Romeo and Juliet did in fact love one another.  If one accepts this, then it becomes equally evident that the acceptance of their love is a repudiation of socially constructed notions of identity.

The social constructions of identity are ones seen in the opening moments of the drama.  Identity in Verona is drawn along socially established lines of who is a Montague and who is a Capulet.  There is no other identity than social affiliation.  The relationship that emerges between Romeo and Juliet is one in which identity is constructed outside of social affiliation.  This is why they struggle so much.  They seek to find an identity outside of "Capulet" and "Montague."  Their escape plan is rooted in this idea.  When Juliet breaks the bonds with her parents in Act III, sc. 5, it is a moment where her identity is outside socially established contours.  The reason why her parents are so harsh to her in this scene is because she seeks to exert an identity that is opposite of what her parents wish.  Identity is shown to be a reality that individuals must actively embrace, which, at times, requires individuals to break down socially dictated notions of the good.  The reason both lovers struggle and eventually die is in their desire to find an identity that is their own, apart from that which is socially manufactured.

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