Examine the different views of love in 'Romeo and Juliet'. In what way is the play about love in a richer sense than we may first suppose?

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Zoë Plant

Examine the different views of love in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. In what way is the play about love in a richer sense than we may first suppose?

     Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet is generally thought to be a play solely about romantic love.  This is partly true; the bulk of the play appears, on the surface, to be about the romantic love that exists between Romeo and Juliet.  However, when studying the play closely it becomes clear that there are many different types of love that exist, between all of the characters.  Romeo and Juliet is not just about romantic love, but about love in a richer sense.  When the play was written at the end of the 16th century, Shakespeare’s audience would have had very different ideas about love and marriage to the ones we hold today.  The Elizabethans believed that love was not an essential part of marriage.  Almost all marriages between the nobility were arranged, and were to the advantage of the families, although not necessarily to that of the children. Girls were married off very young, as soon as they were of childbearing age.  Love was something that came after marriage, not before.

     Love is not the only driving element in Romeo and Juliet: hate and conflict also play a big part in the play.  This underlying struggle between love and hate is particularly noticeable in the Prologue, which speaks of both love and conflict.  It tells us that Romeo and Juliet’s love is ‘death-mark’d’ and talks of them as ‘star-cross’d lovers’.  The contrast of words such as ‘strife’, ‘foes’ and ‘mutiny’ with the words ‘love’ and ‘fair’, show that the play is about the battle between love and hate; the battle of the love of Romeo and Juliet against the hate of their families.  The play begins with hate and conflict, with a ‘civil brawl’ between the Capulets and the Montagues (Act 1, Scene 1), which serves to display the hatred that these two families feel for each other.  Through the prologue and the first scene, Shakespeare tells us that those in love in the play are going to struggle considerably against hate.

     When we first meet Romeo (Act 1, Scene 1) he is suffering from courtly love (not to be confused with romantic love) for Rosaline, a Capulet and Juliet’s cousin.  Courtly love is like a religion of love: Romeo is in love with the idea of being in love rather than Rosaline herself.  At the time that Romeo and Juliet was written, the audience would have understood exactly what courtly love was, and would have recognised that Romeo was displaying all of the typical ‘symptoms’.  Before Romeo actually enters the scene we hear about him through the words of other characters.  We learn that recently he has been taking to his chamber and locking ‘fair daylight out’, creating for himself ‘an artificial night’.  He has only been seen wandering by himself at dawn ‘with tears augmenting the fresh morning dew’ and ‘adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs’.  This follows the conventions of courtly love, and when we later meet Romeo the signs become clearer.  During his speech in the middle of Act 1, Scene 1, he uses language that relates to blindness and obscurity, such as ‘muffled’, ‘without eyes’ and ‘fume’.  This is Shakespeare’s way of showing that Romeo is confused and uncertain about his love for Rosaline.  This also contrasts with how he speaks about Juliet later on, when he describes her as ‘the sun’ and links her to beauty and brightness.  Romeo’s confusion is highlighted in his consistent use of oxymorons when talking about his love for Rosaline: ‘Feather of lead’, ‘bright smoke’, ‘cold fire’, ‘sick health’, ‘still-waking sleep’, and through his constant changing of subject.  His over-use of punctuation and “flowery language” make the speech more dramatic and suggest that his love for Rosaline is exaggerated and artificial.  Mercutio describes Rosaline as having ‘scarlet lip’ and ‘quivering thighs’, helping the audience to understand that Romeo doesn’t really love Rosaline but she is more just a fantasy of his, that he only cares about her body and not her character, and emphasises the fact that this is just courtly love, not true love.  Shakespeare put an example of courtly love into the play to show that when Romeo and Juliet fall in love it is real and powerful.  It provides a good contrast between how Romeo behaves when he thinks he is in love, and how he behaves when he is actually in love.

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     Romantic love is the most obvious form of love in Romeo and Juliet: at first glance, the entire play appears to be about the romantic relationship between Romeo and Juliet.  When Romeo first sees Juliet, he is evidently struck by her beauty.  She shines out to him like ‘a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear’ or a ‘snowy dove trooping with crows’.  This contrast between light and dark in his language could show, moreover, a contrast between how he feels about Juliet and how he feels about Rosaline.  He compares Juliet to light, whiteness and purity, whereas the ...

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