In today’s society, Romeo and Juliet would be considered young love because it is so uncommon. But in sixteenth century England, it was quite normal for fourteen year olds to marry and have their first child by the age of sixteen; which is why many people consider one of the main themes to be young love. There is, undoubtedly an element of youth in this play but it is the nature of youth athwart society’s prejudices, i.e. not being allowed to love someone because of their name: What’s in a name? However there are many other types of love in the play.
Our first meeting with Romeo shows us a stylised conventional view of love, also known as Petrarchan love (due to the Italian fourteenth century love poet Petrarch). This is what characterises Romeo in the opening scenes of the play: he postures and sighs; he understands that Rosaline is not to be ‘hit with Cupid’s arrow’: 1.1.206; she is out of his league, yet neither is he able to forget her, nor depite teasing from Benvolio and Mercutio, is he prepared to try and do so. During the first scenes of the play, Romeo is conspicuously absent and we can tell that he is suffering from lovesickness, the object of this unreturned being Rosaline. He is adamant that there will be no other woman, yet he is equally certain that she does not return his feelings. This accounts for the confusion that we see in the first conversation with Benvolio: 1.1.158-256. His speech is characterised by oxymoron and antithesis as he struggles to make sense of his dilemma. Romeos depression persists even when he is making his way to the ball, and he is a soft target for Mercutio’s wit though he feels that something dreadful will ‘bitterly begin his fearful date,’ something that will end with his ‘untimely death:’ 1.4.109-12
Our first introduction to Juliet is at the Capulet’s ball where Romeo’s confusion and self-doubt are immediately banished when he sees Juliet for the first time and notices how she appears in the dance like ‘a snowy dove trooping with crows:’ 1.5.48 However, this is quite ironic, because only a few hours ago he had been sobbing his heart out for his love of Rosaline: a typical example of young people not knowing what they want, not just in love but in life. However, in contradiction to this view of youth, the language Shakespeare uses when convey the message of Juliet’s beauty is of a much higher quality than that used to describe Rosaline. Shakespeare uses, when comparing things, figurative language. ‘As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear.’
Shakespeare also constantly uses light and dark imagery. His main reference to light and dark is the stars. On one level the stars represent fate – the pair are star-crossed lovers and fated to die. On another level a star shows up against the night sky, like Juliet across the dance floor. What we have is a love that is coruscating, but short-lived, passing across the dark face of a troubled society. Additionally, the image carries with it excitement and a mesmerising speed of action. When Romeo first speaks to Juliet, Shakespeare employs a sonnet: to subtly elevate the opening lines of their love affair: 1.5.93-106. The point about the sonnet is that it has a strict form with an intricate rhyming scheme. There are 3 quatrains – 3 verses of 4 lines each – and a final rhyming couplet. When the sonnet is carefully analysed you will see that the first quatrain is given to Romeo, the second to Juliet, they share the third and together compose the rhyming couplet. What enhances the poetry and makes it more effective is that it is as if Romeo and Juliet are on the same wavelength, a sure sign that the pair are in love.
There are many different views of love in Romeo and Juliet, but none more entertaining than Mercutio. A way to understand the character of Mercutio is to look at his name. A mercurial person is eloquent, active, sprightly and changeable – attributes that are most certainly evident in Mercutio. Mercutio is an attractive character that brings life and fun into the play through humour, wit and puns. He is very different from the serious minded Benvolio. His blunt advice to Romeo is to be ‘rough with love:’ 1.4.27. Mercutio’s death is the tragic force of this play. His immediate response to his injury is make light of it but when he realises the gravity of the wound he utters a cry that will forever sum up the fate of the innocent, ‘A plague o’ both your houses:’ 3.1.106.
However, in contrast to Mercutio, Tybalt is a relatively one-dimensional character. He is hot-tempered, vindictive and aggressive. He dislikes love generally I think, because he dislikes peace; he “hates the word:” 1.1.67-8 and to be at peace, is to love.
But it is not in kinsmen, that these lovers confide, but in the Nurse and Friar Lawrence. The Nurse, who has been Juliet’s closest friend and confidante is earthy and fun-loving yet insecure. She is a servant of the Capulet family and therefore speaks in prose. She is not a particularly clever person nor is she a sensitive one but she comes across as a comic figure. She is though, despite her insensitiveness, genuinely caring, as she is quick to warn Romeo not to lead Juliet into a ‘fools paradise,’ particularly because ‘the gentlewoman is young:’ 2.4.160-162. One suspects that she likes men; she is clearly taken with Romeo.
The Friar’s role in the play parallels that of the Nurse. Romeo respects him and he too is fond of the young man. He acts as a guidance counsellor for Romeo and he is quick to point out the inconsistencies with Romeo’s love. Nevertheless he’s persuaded by Romeo that what he had felt for Rosaline was not love but love ‘read by rote that could not spell:’ 2.3.88. He has what could be a sense of destiny: he feels it is in his power to alter history, which impels him to conduct the marriage in order to ‘turn your households rancour to pure love:’ 2.3.92. Yet it is the friar’s sense of destiny that has got him so deeply involved in the tragedy and possibly is the cause of Romeo and Juliet’s death.
Romeo and Juliet die as a direct consequence of the hatreds of the society in which they find themselves. Their deaths make them permanent symbols of the power of love, which triumphs through all adversity, one that is destined to forever symbolise the tragic loss in all divided societies. Romeo’s love for Juliet is true as is Juliet’s for Romeo. And the speed of their love is incredibly quick. Inevitably so, as events move so quickly, mistakes will be made. The vital message fails to reach Romeo in Mantua. Romeo races to be with his love when all that he hears is she is dead. Romeo feels that he cannot live without Juliet. She is his light amongst the darkness of the troubled society in which the story is based. He ends his life with the subtle and swift use of poison. Juliet rouses herself from her cataleptic state fractionally too late to save her beloved Romeo and herself.
If Romeo had waited, would everything turned out all right? The answer to that we will never know, but one thing we can safely say is that the unique quality of this tragic experience truly is created by the impetuous rashness of youth. This is portrayed through Shakespeare’s ingenuity – that can create a language – which in all its diversity can capture the most beautiful love story ever.