Romeo and Juliet Themes

The main themes in Romeo and Juliet are the transformative power of love, loyalty and family honor, violence and conflict, and tragic fate.

  • Love's Transformative Power: Romeo and Juliet's relationship alters them as individuals and forever changes their families.
  • Loyalty and Family Honor: Caught between their feuding families, Romeo and Juliet must choose between their duty to their parents and their relationship.
  • Violence and Conflict: The violence of the longstanding feud casts a shadow on the hope represented by the protagonists' youthful love.
  • Tragic Fate: The lovers are ill-fated from the start, and the circumstances surrounding them oftentimes seem out of their control.

Themes

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Last Updated on December 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1349

The Transformative Power of Love

Juliet first appears in the play as a submissive, almost silent child, who dutifully promises not only that she will try to fall in love with Paris, the suitor her parents have chosen for her, but that she will love him only as much as her parents give her their permission to do so. Romeo, at the same time, is the conventional despondent lover of a troubadour’s song, weeping and sighing for a disdainful young woman who barely acknowledges his existence.

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There are few literary moments, even in Shakespeare’s drama, to equal the excitement and transformative power of Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting. Romeo seizes Juliet’s hand, the first of several actions on his part (including breaking into her garden and staring up at the window of her bedroom) that might seem worrying if the audience, like the lovers, were not swept away by the sheer energy of the verse. While the tongue-tied lover is a common trope of fiction, Romeo and Juliet continually pour out their adoration in a flood of passionate words, beginning with a perfect sonnet, which is symbolic of their immediate certainty that they were made for each other. Romeo opens their conversation with a complex religious image, to which Juliet responds with an intelligent and beautiful extension of the conceit. The perfect sonnet ends with a perfect kiss.

Juliet was indifferent to Paris and prepared to accept him out of filial duty. Meanwhile, Romeo sighed for Rosaline, who made him miserable. The galvanizing effect of true love on both of them is shown as Juliet instantly becomes a brilliantly expressive woman, whose passion is equalled by her intelligence and loyalty, while Romeo turns with equal suddenness into a paragon of joy. Mercutio, who has mocked Romeo’s moping about Rosaline, is astonished by the transformation he sees after Romeo’s engagement to Juliet (although he is, of course, unaware of the cause), exclaiming, “now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art.” It is this same transformation that makes Romeo so reluctant to fight Tybalt, leading to Mercutio’s intervention and death. After Romeo and Juliet meet, the sheer force of their feelings is evident in everything they do and say. The audience is in a privileged position to understand this, since no one around them—not even Friar Laurence or the Nurse—sees the intensity of their love, and Juliet’s parents are baffled by her sudden aversion to marrying Paris. The audience alone sees the transformative power of love, which turns two young people who first appear rather commonplace into the archetypes of romance.

Family Loyalty and Honor

Juliet’s devotion to Romeo wavers only for an instant: when she hears that he has killed Tybalt, her cousin. Bloodthirsty, humorless and permanently angry, Tybalt is perhaps the least attractive character in the play. Nonetheless, he is a Capulet, and all the Capulets mourn his death with apparent sincerity. Juliet quickly reproaches herself for her momentary disloyalty to her husband, but it has been inculcated in her since birth that her first loyalty is to her family.

The blood feud between the Montagues and the Capulets includes not only family members but the entire retinue of each great household. Ultimately no one is outside it, even the Prince, who, as he says at the end of the play, has “lost a brace of kinsman” to the rivalry. It is notable that Mercutio, who is neither a Montague nor a Capulet, is so appalled by Romeo’s “calm, dishonorable, vile submission” when faced with Tybalt’s insults that he feels honor-bound to step in and fight for his Montague friends. Tybalt, in his turn, is obsessed with the honor of the Capulets, and is always imagining some slight against them, even in Romeo’s peaceful words.

Violence and Conflict

The action of the play takes place over a few short days, during which time six people die: three of them in violent altercations, two by suicide, and one (Lady Montague) mysteriously, offstage, apparently of grief. It is continually emphasized that the streets of Verona are unsafe and that a riot may break out at any moment, as it does in the first scene. Gregory and Sampson joke about rape and murder before they encounter the Montagues, showing how commonplace and trivial such matters have become. When the Prince arrives to bring a temporary and fragile peace to the streets, he angrily reminds the citizens of Verona that:

Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word,

By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,

Have thrice disturb'd the quiet of our streets,

And made Verona's ancient citizens

Cast by their grave beseeming ornaments,

To wield old partisans, in hands as old,

Canker'd with peace, to part your canker'd hate.

The Prince does not give a time frame within which the last three brawls have occurred, but he makes it clear that they are frequent and he is tired of constantly having to restore order. He also makes the point here that these street fights involve everyone, even the very old, who feebly try to keep the peace.

The atmosphere of Romeo and Juliet is one of violence, heat, and haste. Friar Laurence is always counseling patience and tranquillity, but he is out of step with the rest of the characters and is too slow in his arrangements to save the lives of the lovers. The whirlwind romance of the two protagonists is appropriate to a hot summer in a violent Italian city, where one might die any day. This might happen in any number of ways, including many varieties of inexplicable sickness. Juliet’s parents, after all, are grieved by her apparent sudden death on the night before her wedding, but they do not seem as surprised as one might expect. The passionate intensity of Romeo and Juliet’s love is such that the audience cannot imagine it being sustained for weeks, let alone years, adding to the sense of inevitability in their headlong rush towards death.

Tragic Fate

The Prologue announces the deaths of Romeo and Juliet before they appear on stage, and it seems that there is nothing they can do to avoid this fate. Their doom is foreshadowed several times during the course of the play. Romeo’s clumsy attempts to swear to his love by “the inconstant moon” lead Juliet to reflect:

Well, do not swear: although I joy in thee,

I have no joy of this contract to-night:

It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;

Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be

Ere one can say “It lightens.”

Even more ominously, the last time she sees Romeo alive, Juliet says:

O God, I have an ill-divining soul!

Methinks I see thee, now thou art below,

As one dead in the bottom of a tomb:

Either my eyesight fails, or thou look'st pale.

Romeo replies that she also looks pale, remarking portentously “Dry sorrow drinks our blood.” He then says “adieu,” a final farewell, meaning “until God.” They never meet again.

At key moments, we are reminded of the role of fate. When Romeo and his friends prepare to attend the Capulet ball, Romeo ominously remarks that he feels the events of the night will somehow lead to his death. Despite this, he is determined to attend, acknowledging that his fate is ultimately out of his hands: “But he that hath the steerage of my course, / Direct my sail.”

Later when Benvolio tells Romeo of Mercutio’s death, before Tybalt re-enters, Romeo has time to exclaim:

This day's black fate on more days doth depend;

This but begins the woe, others must end.

This seems at the time as though it might refer to his own imminent death, for Tybalt is a skillful swordsman. Romeo does not know or care whether he is likely to die. When he challenges Tybalt, he says that one or both of them must go to join Mercutio, and leaves the issue, like many others in Romeo and Juliet, to fate.

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