Analysis of Major Characters
Yet Romeo’s deep capacity for love is merely a part of his larger capacity for intense feeling of all kinds. Put another way, it is possible to describe Romeo as lacking the capacity for moderation. Love compels him to sneak into the garden of his enemy’s daughter, risking death simply to catch a glimpse of her. Anger compels him to kill his wife’s cousin in a reckless duel to avenge the death of his friend. Despair compels him to suicide upon hearing of Juliet’s death. Such extreme behavior dominates Romeo’s character throughout the play and contributes to the ultimate tragedy that befalls the lovers. Had Romeo restrained himself from killing Tybalt, or waited even one day before killing himself after hearing the news of Juliet’s death, matters might have ended happily. Of course, though, had Romeo not had such depths of feeling, the love he shared with Juliet would never have existed in the first place.
Among his friends, especially while bantering with Mercutio, Romeo shows glimpses of his social persona. He is intelligent, quick-witted, fond of verbal jousting (particularly about sex), loyal, and unafraid of danger.
Juliet gives glimpses of her determination, strength, and sober-mindedness, in her earliest scenes, and offers a preview of the woman she will become during the four-day span of Romeo and Juliet. While Lady Capulet proves unable to quiet the Nurse, Juliet succeeds with one word (also in Act 1, scene 3). In addition, even in Juliet’s dutiful acquiescence to try to love Paris, there is some seed of steely determination. Juliet promises to consider Paris as a possible husband to the precise degree her mother desires. While an outward show of obedience, such a statement can also be read as a refusal through passivity. Juliet will accede to her mother’s wishes, but she will not go out of her way to fall in love with Paris.
Juliet’s development from a wide-eyed girl into a self-assured, loyal, and capable woman is one of Shakespeare’s early triumphs of characterization. It also marks one of his most confident and rounded treatments of a female character.
Friar LawrenceFriar Lawrence occupies a strange position in Romeo and Juliet. He is a kindhearted cleric who helps Romeo and Juliet throughout the play. He performs their marriage and gives generally good advice, especially in regard to the need for moderation. He is the sole figure of religion in the play. But Friar Lawrence is also the most scheming and political of characters in the play: he marries Romeo and Juliet as part of a plan to end the civil strife in Verona; he spirits Romeo into Juliet’s room and then out of Verona; he devises the plan to reunite Romeo and Juliet through the deceptive ruse of a sleeping potion that seems to arise from almost mystic knowledge. This mystical knowledge seems out of place for a Catholic friar; why does he have such knowledge, and what could such knowledge mean? The answers are not clear. In addition, though Friar Lawrence’s plans all seem well conceived and well intentioned, they serve as the main mechanisms through which the fated tragedy of the play occurs. Readers should recognize that the Friar is not only subject to the fate that dominates the play—in many ways he brings that fate about.
MercutioWith a lightning-quick wit and a clever mind, Mercutio is a scene stealer and one of the most memorable characters in all of Shakespeare’s works. Though he constantly puns, jokes, and teases—sometimes in fun, sometimes with bitterness—Mercutio is not a mere jester or prankster. With his wild words, Mercutio punctures the romantic sentiments and blind self-love that exist within the play. He mocks Romeos self-indulgence just as he ridicules Tybalt’s hauteur and adherence to fashion. The critic Stephen Greenblatt describes Mercutio as a force within the play that functions to deflate the possibility of romantic love and the power of tragic fate. Unlike the other characters who blame their deaths on fate, Mercutio dies cursing all Montagues and Capulets. Mercutio believes that specific people are responsible for his death rather than some external impersonal force.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Forcefulness of Love
The powerful nature of love can be seen in the way it is described, or, more accurately, the way descriptions of it so consistently fail to capture its entirety. At times love is described in the terms of religion, as in the fourteen lines when Romeo and Juliet first meet. At others it is described as a sort of magic: “Alike bewitchèd by the charm of looks” (2.Prologue.6). Juliet, perhaps, most perfectly describes her love for Romeo by refusing to describe it: “But my true love is grown to such excess / I cannot sum up some of half my wealth” (3.1.33–34). Love, in other words, resists any single metaphor because it is too powerful to be so easily contained or understood.
Romeo and Juliet does not make a specific moral statement about the relationships between love and society, religion, and family; rather, it portrays the chaos and passion of being in love, combining images of love, violence, death, religion, and family in an impressionistic rush leading to the play’s tragic conclusion.
Love as a Cause of Violence
Love, in Romeo and Juliet, is a grand passion, and as such it is blinding; it can overwhelm a person as powerfully and completely as hate can. The passionate love between Romeo and Juliet is linked from the moment of its inception with death: Tybalt notices that Romeo has crashed the feast and determines to kill him just as Romeo catches sight of Juliet and falls instantly in love with her. From that point on, love seems to push the lovers closer to love and violence, not farther from it. Romeo and Juliet are plagued with thoughts of suicide, and a willingness to experience it: in Act 3, scene 3, Romeo brandishes a knife in Friar Lawrence’s cell and threatens to kill himself after he has been banished from Verona and his love. Juliet also pulls a knife in order to take her own life in Friar Lawrence’s presence just three scenes later. After Capulet decides that Juliet will marry Paris, Juliet says, “If all else fail, myself have power to die” (3.5.242). Finally, each imagines that the other looks dead the morning after their first, and only, sexual experience (“Methinks I see thee,” Juliet says, “. . . as one dead in the bottom of a tomb” (3.5.55–56). This theme continues until its inevitable conclusion: double suicide. This tragic choice is the highest, most potent expression of love that Romeo and Juliet can make. It is only through death that they can preserve their love, and their love is so profound that they are willing to end their lives in its defense. In the play, love emerges as an amoral thing, leading as much to destruction as to happiness. But in its extreme passion, the love that Romeo and Juliet experience also appears so exquisitely beautiful that few would want, or be able, to resist its power.
The Individual Versus Society
It is possible to see Romeo and Juliet as a battle between the responsibilities and actions demanded by social institutions and those demanded by the private desires of the individual. Romeo and Juliet’s appreciation of night, with its darkness and privacy, and their renunciation of their names, with its attendant loss of obligation, make sense in the context of individuals who wish to escape the public world. But the lovers cannot stop the night from becoming day. And Romeo cannot cease being a Montague simply because he wants to; the rest of the world will not let him. The lovers’ suicides can be understood as the ultimate night, the ultimate privacy.
The Inevitability of FateIn its first address to the audience, the Chorus states that Romeo and Juliet are “star-crossed”—that is to say that fate (a power often vested in the movements of the stars) controls them (Prologue.6). This sense of fate permeates the play, and not just for the audience. The characters also are quite aware of it: Romeo and Juliet constantly see omens. When Romeo believes that Juliet is dead, he cries out, “Then I defy you, stars,” completing the idea that the love between Romeo and Juliet is in opposition to the decrees of destiny (5.1.24). Of course, Romeo’s defiance itself plays into the hands of fate, and his determination to spend eternity with Juliet results in their deaths. The mechanism of fate works in all of the events surrounding the lovers: the feud between their families (it is worth noting that this hatred is never explained; rather, the reader must accept it as an undeniable aspect of the world of the play); the horrible series of accidents that ruin Friar Lawrence’s seemingly well-intentioned plans at the end of the play; and the tragic timing of Romeo’s suicide and Juliet’s awakening. These events are not mere coincidences, but rather manifestations of fate that help bring about the unavoidable outcome of the young lovers’ deaths.
The concept of fate described above is the most commonly accepted interpretation. There are other possible readings of fate in the play: as a force determined by the powerful social institutions that influence Romeo and Juliet’s choices, as well as fate as a force that emerges from Romeo and Juliet’s very personalities.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Light/Dark ImageryOne of the play’s most consistent visual motifs is the contrast between light and dark, often in terms of night/day imagery. This contrast is not given a particular metaphoric meaning—light is not always good, and dark is not always evil. On the contrary, light and dark are generally used to provide a sensory contrast and to hint at opposed alternatives. One of the more important instances of this motif is Romeo’s lengthy meditation on the sun and the moon during the balcony scene, in which Juliet, metaphorically described as the sun, is seen as banishing the “envious moon” and transforming the night into day (2.1.46). A similar blurring of night and day occurs in the early morning hours after the lovers’ only night together. Romeo, forced to leave for exile in the morning, and Juliet, not wanting him to leave her room, both try to pretend that it is still night, and that the light is actually darkness: “More light and light, more dark and dark our woes” (3.5.36).
Opposite Points of ViewShakespeare includes numerous speeches and scenes in Romeo and Juliet that hint at alternative ways to evaluate the play. Shakespeare uses two main devices in this regard: Mercutio and servants. Mercutio consistently skewers the viewpoints of all the other characters in play: he sees Romeo’s devotion to love as a sort of blindness that robs Romeo from himself; similarly, he sees Tybalt’s devotion to honor as blind and stupid. His punning and the Queen Mab speech can be interpreted as undercutting virtually every passion evident in the play. Mercutio serves as a critic of the delusions of righteousness and grandeur held by the characters around him.
Where Mercutio is a nobleman who openly criticizes other nobles, the views offered by servants in the play are less explicit. There is the Nurse who lost her baby and husband, the servant Peter who cannot read, the musicians who care about their lost wages and their lunches, and the Apothecary who cannot afford to make the moral choice, the lower classes present a second tragic world to counter that of the nobility. The nobles’ world is full of grand tragic gestures. The servants’ world, in contrast, is characterized by simple needs, and early deaths brought about by disease and poverty rather than dueling and grand passions. Where the nobility almost seem to revel in their capacity for drama, the servants’ lives are such that they cannot afford tragedy of the epic kind.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
PoisonIn his first appearance, in Act 2, scene 2, Friar Lawrence remarks that every plant, herb, and stone has its own special properties, and that nothing exists in nature that cannot be put to both good and bad uses. Thus, poison is not intrinsically evil, but is instead a natural substance made lethal by human hands. Friar Lawrence’s words prove true over the course of the play. The sleeping potion he gives Juliet is concocted to cause the appearance of death, not death itself, but through circumstances beyond the Friar’s control, the potion does bring about a fatal result: Romeo’s suicide. As this example shows, human beings tend to cause death even without intending to. Similarly, Romeo suggests that society is to blame for the apothecary’s criminal selling of poison, because while there are laws prohiting the Apothecary from selling poison, there are no laws that would help the apothecary make money. Poison symbolizes human society’s tendency to poison good things and make them fatal, just as the pointless Capulet-Montague feud turns Romeo and Juliet’s love to poison. After all, unlike many of the other tragedies, this play does not have an evil villain, but rather people whose good qualities are turned to poison by the world in which they live.
Thumb-bitingIn Act 1, scene 1, the buffoonish Samson begins a brawl between the Montagues and Capulets by flicking his thumbnail from behind his upper teeth, an insulting gesture known as biting the thumb. He engages in this juvenile and vulgar display because he wants to get into a fight with the Montagues but doesn’t want to be accused of starting the fight by making an explicit insult. Because of his timidity, he settles for being annoying rather than challenging. The thumb-biting, as an essentially meaningless gesture, represents the foolishness of the entire Capulet/Montague feud and the stupidity of violence in general.
Queen MabIn Act 1, scene 4, Mercutio delivers a dazzling speech about the fairy Queen Mab, who rides through the night on her tiny wagon bringing dreams to sleepers. One of the most noteworthy aspects of Queen Mab’s ride is that the dreams she brings generally do not bring out the best sides of the dreamers, but instead serve to confirm them in whatever vices they are addicted to—for example, greed, violence, or lust. Another important aspect of Mercutio’s description of Queen Mab is that it is complete nonsense, albeit vivid and highly colorful. Nobody believes in a fairy pulled about by “a small grey-coated gnat” whipped with a cricket’s bone (1.4.65). Finally, it is worth noting that the description of Mab and her carriage goes to extravagant lengths to emphasize how tiny and insubstantial she and her accoutrements are. Queen Mab and her carriage do not merely symbolize the dreams of sleepers, they also symbolize the power of waking fantasies, daydreams, and desires. Through the Queen Mab imagery, Mercutio suggests that all desires and fantasies are as nonsensical and fragile as Mab, and that they are basically corrupting. This point of view contrasts starkly with that of Romeo and Juliet, who see their love as real and ennobling.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foesAs a prologue to the play, the Chorus enters. In a fourteen-line sonnet, the Chorus describes two noble households (called “houses”) in the city of Verona. The houses hold an “ancient grudge” (Prologue.2) against each other that remains a source of violent and bloody conflict. The Chorus states that from these two houses, two “star-crossed” (Prologue.6) lovers will appear. These lovers will mend the quarrel between their families by dying. The story of these two lovers, and of the terrible strife between their families, will be the topic of this play.
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life. . . .
The obvious function of the Prologue as introduction to the Verona of Romeo and Juliet can obscure its deeper, more important function. The Prologue does not merely set the scene of Romeo and Juliet, it tells the audience exactly what is going to happen in the play. The Prologue refers to an ill-fated couple with its use of the word “star-crossed,” which means, literally, against the stars. Stars were thought to control people’s destinies. But the Prologue itself creates this sense of fate by providing the audience with the knowledge that Romeo and Juliet will die even before the play has begun. The audience therefore watches the play with the expectation that it must fulfill the terms set in the Prologue. The structure of the play itself is the fate from which Romeo and Juliet cannot escape.