How does Shakespeare present love through Romeo and Juliet and a selection of his sonnets?

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Shakespeare presents love as a polarizing force through both Romeo and Juliet and a selection of his sonnets. Unrequited and courtly, it evokes feelings of great anguish yet when reciprocated and true, brings great joy, albeit in fleeting moments. Spiritual love can evolve into a pure entity, transcending physical attraction and even death – also allowing the protagonists of the play to transcend the bitter feud of their families.

Shakespeare first presents the idea of unrequited love in Romeo and Juliet as being afflictive and filled with despair – Romeo is a typical Petrarchan, courtly lover in Act 1 Scene 1; his feelings of love have not been reciprocated by Rosaline, and this causes him to dwell on his emotional torment. Romeo shuts himself in his room and ‘makes himself an artificial night’, he isolates himself in complete darkness to represent his state of deep depression and suffering. He uses the exaggerated clichés of typical Petrarchan poetry to illustrate his suffering, for example “Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health”. Here, the lightness of the feather could represent the lightness one feels during love, contrasting with the heaviness of lead, to represent how unrequited love causes a heavy heart. Romeo uses these oxymorons to blend the joys of love with the emotional anguish of unrequited love and also to demonstrate his mixed emotions felt for Rosaline. These descriptions additionally show us that most of his understanding of love has been taken from the typical courtly/ Petrarchan love - they are filled with the feelings of great torment usually accompanied with this type of love. Courtly love is an idealized, infatuated form of love in which a courtier devotes himself to an unattainable woman (usually married). Romeo’s use of traditional Petrarchan clichés portray him as a young, inexperienced lover who is more fixated on the concept of love depicted in Petrarchan poetry, rather than actually being in love. The Elizabethan audience Romeo and Juliet would have been performed to would have been very aware of the idea of courtly/ Petrarchan love in poetry, as they were heavily exposed to the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Philip Sidney.

Unrequited love that causes torment and great suffering is similarly explored in Sonnet 28. In the poem, the speaker personifies day and night as forces that, though usually are at odds with one another, work together to “oppress” him. They “shake hands” – usually the oppression brought by the toils of day would be “eas’d by night”, in that the speaker could rest but he complains that this is not the case as he is plagued by thoughts of how far away he remains from his love. The speaker hopes the ‘oppression’ of day and night may be stopped with flattery. “Thou art bright and dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven” – the speaker’s object of affection is ‘bright’; when it is cloudy his beloved takes the place of the sun so day can be just as beautiful. He also flatters the night with ‘when sparkling stars twire not, though gild’st the even’ – again ‘thou’ refers to the beloved of the speaker (the fair youth), who shines to make the night beautiful when the stars ‘twire not’. Because of the misery felt by the speaker in Sonnet 28 during both day and night, he can be linked to Romeo in Act 1 Scene 1, who similarly suffers the torment of his unrequited love during both day and night. Romeo suffers from ‘still-waking sleep’ and we learn from Benvolio and Lord Montague that he walks the streets of Verona “an hour before the woshipp’d sun peer’d forth from the golden window of the east”, “with tears augmenting the morning’s dew”. Thus, like the speaker in Sonnet 28, Romeo finds no rest or relief from his suffering at night. The use of the opposites of day and night in Sonnet 28 also links to the oxymorons used by Romeo in Act 1 Scene 1; the contrasts used by the speaker and Romeo again highlight their mixed emotions and distressed state of mind.

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The love between Romeo and Juliet is presented as being spiritual and sacred, highly contrasting with Romeo’s past infatuation for Rosaline. Romeo and Juliet’s entire first conversation is an intertwined fourteen line sonnet in which they develop a complicated religious metaphor. The sonnet is typically associated with the theme of love; it is clear that the pair are falling in love but also the rigid, ‘flawless’ form of a sonnet suggests their shared love will be perfect. The fact that Romeo and Juliet share the sonnet is significant, as their love is shared, contrasting with unrequited love Romeo had for ...

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