Despite what you might have been taught, Romeo and Juliet didn’t really die. If you type ‘real life Romeo and Juliet’ into an internet search engine, you’ll be presented with dozens of factual news stories from the recent past. Some of them will be heart-warming romances of love that survived against the odds. Others will be upsetting accounts of couples separated or even killed because of their different backgrounds, religions or ethnicities. Nowadays, we use the story of Romeo and Juliet’s ‘star-crossed’ relationship as a short-hand for a particular sort of passionate, heroic love that defies prejudice and convention. There are Romeos and Juliets in every community and country across the world.
This global reach tells us something about William Shakespeare’s influence as a figure in world literary heritage, and about the popularity of Romeo and Juliet, one of his most widely-performed plays. In its four centuries on stage, page and screen, the play has taught us to celebrate the power of love over hate, and it has given us a language and a set of characters to embody that celebration. You might have read that it’s a ‘timeless’ love story, which rather suggests that the play has had a consistent effect on its audience and readers over many hundreds of years.
But what happens if we think about the story of Romeo and Juliet on its own terms, and in the context of its own time? The play was written in the 1590s, when beliefs about romance, emotions and sexuality were very different to now. Attitudes to parenting and youth culture were different, too, as were assumptions about the sorts of behaviour appropriate to men and women. The play is evidently intended to address issues around passion and eroticism – but do we respond to these themes in the same way as audience members four hundred years ago?
We’ll need to think afresh about the way Shakespeare presents the lovers’ overwhelming passion – a feeling so strong that it leads to their elopement and suicide. The first thing we might notice is that Shakespeare is careful to show us a contrasting sort of love before he develops the relationship between Juliet and Romeo. In Act 1 Scene 1, Benvolio challenges his friend Romeo to explain his melancholy, and Romeo reveals that he’s in love with the unseen Rosaline. Or is it just infatuation? Benvolio certainly seems pretty brisk and unsympathetic: his suggested cure for Romeo’s lovesickness is that he ‘forget to think’ of Rosaline and ‘examine other beauties’: he should check out other girls. Benvolio has detected that there is something shallow about Romeo’s love for Rosaline, and the giveaway is Romeo’s language. When he speaks of her, he uses a whole panoply of poetical devices such as hyperbole or exaggeration (‘she hath Dian’s wit’ – she’s as clever as a goddess), oxymoron or contradiction in terms (‘a madness most discreet’), word-play (‘She is too fair, too wise, wisely too fair’) and complicated imagery (‘Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs’). Benvolio recognises that Romeo is speaking in very conventional – even clichéd – terms about Rosaline. Shakespeare’s audiences would have realised that Romeo was using poetic terminology that by the 1590s was tired and old-fashioned. In other words, we’re supposed to find Romeo’s obsession with Rosaline unconvincing.
Things are very different when Juliet and Romeo meet for the first time at the Capulet ball in Act 1 Scene 5. Although Romeo does indeed make use of some rather hyperbolic language when he sets eyes on Juliet (‘she doth teach the torches to burn bright!’), their first conversation together is thrillingly original. For a start, they share a set of lines and stanzas that combine to make up a sonnet, a 14-line poem that in the late sixteenth century exemplified the expression of intense feeling. But it’s the content of their first lines together that would have made Shakespeare’s first audience realise that something unusual was happening. Instead of poetic clichés about the burning fires of love, Juliet and Romeo embark on a complex shared metaphor in which Juliet is figured as a ‘holy shrine’, and Romeo is a pilgrim, or ‘holy palmer’, who has come to pay homage to the sacred statue by kissing it. Juliet initially suggests that they chastely touch palms instead of kissing, but then consents to grant Romeo’s ‘prayer’, and the couple kiss for the first time. Moments later, Juliet is called away – but the young couple have already fallen irrevocably in love.
Today, we might not immediately register that the lovers’ extended religious metaphor is in a very different key to conventional romantic poetry. For Shakespeare and his first audience, however, the Roman Catholic imagery of saints, shrines, pilgrims and prayers would have set alarm bells ringing: these religious practices were illegal in Protestant England. English men and women had been taught that to worship a shrine was idolatrous, and a sin against God. Here, Romeo is taking this sin one step further, and pretending to worship an earthly woman above the Almighty. Not only is this sort of religious play-acting unusual in a love story, but it suggests that the love affair itself might be something dangerous and even profane.
We’re given a number of hints that the meeting of Romeo and Juliet is an event that will have dark consequences. Romeo himself ‘misgives’(fears) ‘some vile forfeit of untimely death’ when he and his friends make their way to the fateful Capulet ball, and Juliet too recognises the bitter irony that her ‘only love’ Romeo has sprung from her ‘only hate’, the Montague clan. Juliet calls the beginning of their love ‘prodigious’, a word that usually meant an apparition or supernatural event that foreshadowed disaster. And as it turns out, the lovers’ passion does lead to catastrophe. Just as the Capulet ball sees the sudden kindling of Tybalt’s murderous hatred for Romeo, so the events of the party spark the ultimately deadly union of Juliet and Romeo. For people in Shakespeare’s England, overwhelming emotion – passion – was a dangerous thing, whether such feelings tended to violence or to sudden erotic attraction. In either case, so people thought, those powerful feelings made people behave in impetuous and damaging ways.
So although we rightly celebrate Romeo and Juliet today as one of the greatest love stories ever told, Shakespeare didn’t necessarily intend for his play to champion the heroism and loyalty of his leading lovers. Don’t forget that in the Prologue we are told very clearly that it isn’t Romeo and Juliet’s love that will heal their parents’ divisions, but their death. We might hope, like Friar Lawrence, that the lovers’ marriage will ‘reconcile’ the Montagues and Capulets (Act 3 Scene 4), but the play seems to be dropping heavy hints that Romeo and Juliet are doomed from the word go.