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Themes and Motifs in Romeo and Juliet

Although Romeo and Juliet is classified as a tragedy, it more closely resembles Shakespeare's comedies than his other tragedies. The lovers and their battle with authority is reminiscent of As You Like It and The Winter's Tale. "Characteristically, those comedies concern themselves with the inborn, unargued stupidity of older people and the life-affirming gaiety and resourcefulness of young ones. The lovers thread their way through obstacles set up by middle aged vanity and impercipience. Parents are stupid and do not know what it best for their children or themselves . . . [Romeo and Juliet] begins with the materials for a comedy - the stupid parental generation, the instant attraction of the young lovers, the quick surface life of street fights, masked balls and comic servants" (Wain, p. 107).

Indeed, one could view Romeo and Juliet as a transitional play in which Shakespeare merges the comedic elements perfected in his earlier work with tragic elements he would later perfect in the great tragedies -- Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear. This mixture of styles ultimately hurts Romeo and Juliet, exposing the immaturity of the playwright. The heroes of the play must contend with external forces that impede their relationship, but, unlike the great tragic heroes, they are devoid of the inner struggle that makes for great tragedy. The influential Shakespearean scholar, A.C. Bradley, went so far as to neglect the play entirely in his well-known collection of lectures on the great tragedies, Shakespearean Tragedy. While no one can deny the merits of Shakespeare's powerful, inspired verse, the themes Shakespeare stresses in Romeo and Juliet also seem to reflect his immaturity as a writer. To understand properly who this is so, we must examine each pervasive motif in the play.


When Romeo initially sees Juliet, he compares her immediately to the brilliant light of the torches and tapers that illuminate Capulet's great hall: "O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!" (1.4.46). Juliet is the light that frees him from the darkness of his perpetual melancholia. In the famous balcony scene Romeo associates Juliet with sunlight, "It is the east and Juliet is the sun!" (2.2.3), daylight, "The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars/As daylight doth a lamp" (2.2.20-1), and the light emanating from angels, "O speak again bright angel" (2.2.26).

In turn, Juliet compares their new-found love to lightening (2.2.120), primarily to stress the speed at which their romance is moving, but also to suggest that, as the lightening is a glorious break in the blackness of the night sky, so too is their love a flash of wondrous luminance in an otherwise dark world -- a world where her every action is controlled by those around her. When the Nurse does not arrive fast enough with news about Romeo, Juliet laments that love's heralds should be thoughts "Which ten times faster glides than the sun's beams/Driving back shadows over lowering hills" (2.5.4-5). Here, the heralds of love that will bring comforting news about her darling are compared to the magical and reassuring rays of sun that drive away unwanted shadows. Juliet also equates Romeo and the bond that they share with radiant light. In a common play on words, she begs Romeo to "not impute this yielding to light love/Which the dark night hath so discovered" (2.2.105-6), again comparing their mutual feelings of love to bright and comforting light. Having no fear of the darkness, Juliet proclaims that night can
Take [Romeo] and cut him out into little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garrish sun. (3.2.23-6)
Here Romeo, transformed into shimmering immortality, becomes the very definition of light, outshining the sun itself. However, despite all the aforementioned positive references to light in the play, it ultimately takes on a negative role, forcing the lovers to part at dawn:
Romeo. It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.
Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountaintops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die. (3.5.6-11)
From this point on, darkness becomes the central motif. Romeo exclaims: "More light and light: more dark and dark our woes!" (3.5.36). And, as Peter Quennell writes, "...the beauty and brevity of love itself -- that 'brief light', doomed to quick extinction, celebrated in Catullus' famous lyric -- are set off by the 'perpetual darkness' of ancient Capulets' sepulchral vault" (Shakespeare: A Biography, p. 150). The final indication that darkness has triumphed over light comes from The Prince: "A glooming peace this morning with it brings/The sun for sorrow will not show his head" (5.3.304-5). There are several other examples one could cite, and, despite Shakespeare's masterful poetic styling, many critics argue that these continual references to light are overkill, illustrative of Shakespeare at his most immature stage of writing.


Early in the play, Romeo is painfully aware of the passage of time as he pines for Rosaline: "sad hours seem long" (1.1.159). Mercutio is the first to address the problem of "wasted time", and after his complaint, a sudden shift occurs and time quickens to rapid movement. Capulet laments that the years are passing too fast, and Juliet cautions that her love for Romeo is "too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden...too like the lightening" (2.2.120). Soon time begins to aid in the destruction of the lovers. Capulet rushes ahead the marriage date, insisting Juliet wed Paris a day early, and thus forcing her into swift and, ultimately, fatal action. "The fast-paced world that Shakespeare builds up around his characters allows little possibility for adherence to Friar Lawrence's counsel of "Wisely and slow." In such a world to stumble tragically is surely no less inevitable than it is for Lear to go mad in the face of human ingratitude." (Cole, p. 17). As with Shakespeare's manipulation of the theme of light, it can be said that his reliance on time as an increasingly menacing force against the lovers is immature and artificial.


As critic Bertrand Evans points out: "Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy of unawareness" more so than any of Shakespeare's other plays. "Fate, or Heaven, as the Prince calls it, or the "greater power," as the Friar calls it, working out its purpose without the use of either a human villain or a supernatural agent sent to intervene in mortal affairs, operates through the common human condition of not knowing. Participants in the action, some of them in parts that are minor and seem insignificant, contribute one by one the indispensable stitches which make the pattern, and contribute them not knowing; that is to say, they act when they do not know the truth of the situation in which they act, this truth being known, however, to us who are spectators." (The Brevity of Friar Laurence, p. 50)

The idea that Fortune dictates the course of mankind dates back to ancient times. Those writers of the medieval world incorporated the goddess Fortune into Christianity and made her God's servant, responsible for adding challenges to our lives so that we would see the importance of giving up our tumultuous earthly lives to God. The most influential treatise on the theme of Fate was The Consolation of Philosophy, written by the scholar Boethius (A.D. 475-525). Written while he awaited execution, it is a dialogue between himself and his guide 'Philosophy', who explores with him the true nature of happiness and fate, and leads him to hope and enlightenment. The following is an excerpt from Book IV:
To human acts alone denied
Thy fit control as Lord of all.
Why else does slippery Fortune change
So much, and punishment more fit
For crime oppress the innocent?
Corrupted men sit throned on high;
By strange reversal evilness
Downtreads the necks of holy men.
Bright virtue lies in dark eclipse
By clouds obscured, and unjust men
Heap condemnation on the just...
Look down on all earth's wretchedness;
Of this great work is man so mean
A part, by Fortune to be tossed?
Lord...Make stable all the land's of the earth. (Book IV)
Boethius' work, specifically his concept of "Fortune's wheel", made an enormous impact on the work of Chaucer and Dante and, less directly, Shakespeare. Fate's impact on Romeo and Juliet is made clear from the outset of the play. The Chorus tells us that the lovers are "star-cross'd", and thus hindered by the influence of malignant planets (note that Renaissance astrologers used the planets to predict plagues and other such calamities, in addition to predicting the outcome and quality of individual's lives). Throughout the play Fate's role is reaffirmed as the lovers sense its interference. Romeo, just before he attends Capulet's ball, has a premonition:
My mind misgives
Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars,
Shall bitterly begin thisd fearful date
With this night's revels, and expire the term
Of a dispised life, clos'd in my breast,
By some vile forfeit of untimely death:
But he that hath the steerage of my course
Direct my sail! (1.4.106)
Romeo later cries that he is "fortune's fool" (3.1.141), and Juliet exclaims that she has an "ill-divining soul" (3.5.52). Moreover, their predictions extend into their dreams, as Romeo says "I dreamt my lady came and found me dead" (5.1.6). So in keeping with tradition set down by the likes of Seneca and Boethius, Fate controls Shakespeare's doomed lovers. And "[t]he intent of this emphasis is clear. The tale will end with the death of two ravishingly attractive young folk; and the dramatist must exonerate himself from all complicity in their murder, lest he be found guilty of pandering to a liking for a human shambles. He disowns responsibility and throws it on Destiny, Fate." (Charlton, Shakespearean Tragedy, 52). This reliance on the motif of Fate in the play is the most representative of Shakespeare's dramatic deficiency. It is not the lovers' flaws that lead them to ruin; the tragedy does not spring from their own weaknesses. As a result, there is little growth of character and no profound analysis of the complexity of human nature. Thus, despite the lyrical beauty of the play and the endearing qualities of Romeo and his Juliet, (which have secured its place as one of the great dramas), it fails to rise to the level of Shakespeare's other tragedies that explore the inner failings of humankind.

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Themes and Motifs in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare Online. 18 Sept. 2000. < >.

Charlton, H.B. Shakespearean Tragedy. Cambridge: University Press, 1948.
Evans, Bertrand. The Brevity of Friar Laurence. PMLA, LXV, 1950.
Granville-Barker, Henry. Prefaces to Shakespeare. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970.
Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare and the Tragic Pattern. Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol.XLIV. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.
Patmore, Peter George. Imitations of Celebrated Authors. 4th ed. London: H. Colburn, 1844.
Wain, John. View Points. In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Douglas Cole. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970.


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The Nature of Romeo's Love

microsoft images "If Shakespeare had proposed to himself to illustrate and make manifest the various movements and qualities appertaining to and constituting the passion of love, would he have made it the first action of his lover to rise from the feet of one mistress, and, without a moment's pause, throw himself before another; forgetting from that time forth that the first had ever existed, much less held him in thrall? Is this the character of love? No: -- but it is the character of youth, and therefore Shakespeare has made his youthful man exhibit it: for Romeo is not a lover, nor any other individual modification of the human character; he has, in fact, no individual and determinate character at all, but is a general specimen of man -- a pure abstraction of our human nature -- at that particular period of its being which occurs exactly between boyhood and maturity, and which we call, by way of distinction, the period of Youth." (Peter George Patmore. Imitations of Celebrated Authors, 4th ed.)


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The Dramatic Purpose of Act 1, Scene 1... "The thread of the feud action is here introduced with the peace-making Benvolio on the side of the Montagues and the fiery Tybalt on the Capulet side. The quarrel is suppressed when the Prince enters and, in the presence of the heads of the two houses which have thrice disturbed Verona's streets with broils, declares that death will be the penalty if civil peace is again threatened by their hatred. This warning is a preparation for the tragic climax. The love action is suggested. The strangeness of Romeo's new mood is discussed by his parents and Benvolio. When Romeo enters, it is soon discovered that the cause is unrequited love. Benvolio's determination to teach Romeo to forget this lady prepares the way for the change in the hero's feelings in the masquerade scene." Read on...


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