Regarding Shakespeare, playwright Ben Jonson once wrote, “He was not of an age, but for all time!”
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is arguably the most famous love story in history. In this lecture, we will provide a short synopsis of the play, and then analyze its most dominant theme – that of love.
The play begins with a street brawl between members of two powerful families of Verona – the Montagues and the Capulets. Despite this longstanding family feud, Romeo, a Montague, secretly marries Juliet of the Capulet family. Unfortunately for the two young lovers, Tybalt, who is Juliet’s cousin, murders Romeo’s friend Mercutio shortly after their secret marriage. In retaliation, Romeo kills Tybalt. This sparks outrage among the citizens of Verona, and the Prince banishes Romeo from the city.
Juliet grieves over her separation from Romeo. But her family, suspecting that her grief is over her slain cousin Tybalt, resolves to alleviate her sadness by offering her hand in marriage to a wealthy and handsome young man named Paris. To avoid this unwanted marriage, Juliet seeks the aid of Friar Laurence, who married Romeo and Juliet. The Friar devises a plan in which Juliet will drink a sleeping potion that will give her the appearance of being dead for 42 hours.
On the day appointed for her marriage to Paris, Juliet is found dead by her family. Her body is carried to the Capulet cemetery, and placed within a mausoleum. Meanwhile, Friar Laurence sends a message to the banished Romeo, informing him of what has transpired, and arranging for his secret return to Verona in time to flee with Juliet when she awakens from the sleeping potion. The message, however, never reaches Romeo. Instead, Romeo learns from one of his friends that Juliet is dead.
Romeo hurries back to Verona and to the Capulet cemetery. There, he drinks poison and dies beside the body of Juliet. Juliet awakens from her sleep, discovers Romeo’s lifeless corpse, and then kills herself by plunging a dagger into her heart. The Montagues and Capulets arrive on the scene. Feeling a sense of responsibility for the tragedy, they agree to bury their animosities towards one another, and the play ends.
Romantic love is the play’s most prominent theme. But what is love? Is it different from infatuation? Does Romeo truly love Juliet? In the beginning of the play, Romeo swears that he loves Rosaline. But after seeing Juliet, he immediately transfers his passion from Rosaline to her. Speaking to Romeo about this inconsistency, Friar Laurence states, “Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here! Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear, So soon forsaken? young men’s love then lies Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.”
If Romeo sees another woman more beautiful than Juliet, will he abandon his love for Juliet? Is true love subject to change, or is it everlasting? These are the questions that Shakespeare challenges the reader to answer.
The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet also presents the incredible power of love. In the famous balcony scene, Juliet asks Romeo how he was able to climb the orchard walls and come to her window. Romeo answers, “With love’s light wings did I o’er perch these walls, for stony limits cannot hold love out.” For Romeo, everything can be accomplished through the power of love.
The sentiment that “Love conquers all” leads to a unique interpretation of the play as a triumph of love rather than a tragedy of love. The deaths of Romeo and Juliet are not tragic. In death, Romeo and Juliet are united, which is a union that was impossible in life. Furthermore, their deaths brought about the union of their quarreling families. Thus, the opinion that Romeo and Juliet is a bleak tragedy about the consequences of unbridled love is mistaken. The play is rather an expression of the extraordinary power of love to create harmony and everlasting happiness.