Themes and SymbolismRealism and love
To the romantic lovers, marriage is a matter of love; to Capulet, marriage is a transaction best arranged by the father rather than left to the daughter concerned. Juliet's parents do not seem to have a loving marriage. Lady Capulet is curt towards her husband, who is much older than she is. She takes rather a cold view of marriage, and like her husband, cannot understand why Juliet would be unwilling to accept the opportunity offered by Paris, to move up in Veronese society. Benvolio also offers a more practical stance on love. He tries to make Romeo see how excessive and unnecessary is his love for Rosaline, and is unable to understand his cousin's strength of feeling. Admittedly, it becomes clear that Romeo's love is not really love, but it is clear that if Benvolio had known of his friend's love for Juliet, he would apply the same common sense to the situation.
The love of Romeo and Juliet is set against a background of feuding and hate. We are made aware of this before the lovers are introduced, and what the Chorus first mentions in the Prologue. Because the audience is never told of its origins, we cannot take sides, but its effects are immense. The tragic events of the play can all be traced back to the in-fighting between the Montagues and Capulets. And ultimately it justifies the lovers' rejection of their family and friends in pursuit of happiness while others may offer advice on the subject of love, their obsessive hatred for the enemy negates all their good sense. Juliet and Romeo are the only ones removed from this prejudice and want no part of it. Their love is transforming and the audience is in no doubt as to who is in the right.
Petrarch (1304-74), the medieval Italian poet, was a huge influence on writers of the Renaissance. His poetry established literary conventions of behaviour in love. Romeo is a typical Petrarchan lover, expressing his sorrow over Rosaline with convoluted and elaborate language, obsessed and overwhelmed with feeling. Mercutio ridicules Romeo in pointing to how fashionable his behaviour is: 'Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in' (II.4.38-9). As a foil to Romeo's exaggerated idealistic view of love, Mercutio undermines the seriousness of Romeo's declarations with bawdy comments and cool pragmatism. Romeo seems to be in love with the idea of love rather than Rosaline.
The play opens with Sampson and Gregory making bawdy jokes, and this humour is a major feature of the play. Romeo and Juliet's love is frequently contrasted with lewdness. The Nurse makes sexual puns and shows no concept of a more spiritual love (she suggests Juliet commit bigamy and sees sex as the main part of a relationship between men and women). For the lovers, however, sexual desire is the expression of their depth of feeling rather than the point of love, as the Nurse sees it. Mercutio is also earthy and ribald. He mocks his friend and suggests that Romeo's high-minded love is being used to disguise what is merely lust.
Shakespeare's conception of fate in Romeo and Juliet is that of the lovers as victims of circumstances. The plot progresses through awful coincidences and creates the impression that a hostile fate is at work. This is enforced by the description of the lovers at the beginning - the Chorus alludes to the 'pair of star-crossed lovers' and we know they are fated to die before the play has even begun. The lovers themselves suspect as much: to Benvolio's warning, 'Away, be gone. The sport is at the best', Romeo replies, 'Ay, so I fear', voicing his worry that things are too good to last (I.5.119-20). When Juliet learns of Romeo's identity, she asserts 'Prodigious birth of love it is to me / That I must love a loathed enemy' (I.5.140-1). An Elizabethan audience would know fate would be unable to resist Romeo's challenge in Act II: 'Then love-devouring death do what he dare' (II.6.7). Throughout the play references to fate increase our sense of foreboding, that there is nothing Romeo and Juliet can do to avoid death. The Friar roots this in Act V: 'A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents' (V.3.153-4), Mercutio's curse as he lay dying in Act III, scene 1 - 'A plague a 'both your houses' enough for an Elizabethan audience to believe in the inevitability of the terrible ending.
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