William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are often regarded as the exemplars to whom all lovers should strive to be, and their love is often regarded as the standard by which all romantic relationships should be judged. Despite the many accolades these lovers have received, however, some over the years have questioned the genuineness of their love. Many, for instance, have charged that Romeo is merely an impetuous, immature youth whose love for Juliet is never deep and sincere. In what follows, I argue that Romeo’s love for Juliet is deep and sincere from the moment they meet and that it grows deeper and more sincere as the play progresses.
There are, it should be noted, a few possible reasons to doubt the depth and sincerity of Romeo’s initial love for Juliet. First, the fact that he so suddenly and passionately changes his love interests possibly reveals that his initial feelings for Juliet are shallow. In the beginning of the play, Romeo claims to be madly in love with Rosaline. For instance, he describes himself as “Shut up in prison, kept without my food,/ Whipt and tormented” because Rosaline has rejected him (I.ii.54-55). He also refers to Rosaline as the “devout religion” of his eyes (I.ii.88), whose match the sun has not seen “since first the world began” (I.ii.93). Just a few hours later, however, Romeo spots Juliet at the ball and immediately declares, “Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!/ For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night” (I.v.51-52). The fact that he goes from being madly in love with one woman to another could suggest that he does not deeply love either.
Another possible reason to question Romeo’s initial love for Juliet is that he uses the same images when speaking about her as he did when speaking about Rosaline. First, as we saw, Romeo describes both Rosaline and Juliet as incomparably beautiful. Second, he likens both women to fine jewelry. He declares that Rosaline is “The precious treasure of his eyesight lost” (I.i.224). Similarly, he declares, before even talking to her, that Juliet “hangs upon the cheek of night/ As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear” (I.v.44-45). Third, Romeo uses religious imagery when talking about both women. He calls Rosaline the “devout religion” of his eyes (I.ii.88), and refers to Juliet as a “holy shrine” (I.v.93) who purges his sin with a kiss (I.v.106).
A final possible reason to doubt Romeo’s initial love for Juliet is that he appears to be consumed by thoughts of sex, which possibly reveal that he cares more about sex than love. Romeo, for instance, laments early in the play that Rosaline has taken a vow of chastity (I.i.199-215). Likewise, in his soliloquy in the balcony scene, he expresses his desire that Juliet lose her virginity to him: “Her [the moon’s] vestal livery is but sick and green,/ And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off” (II.ii.8-9).
Although there appear to be reasons to doubt Romeo’s initial love for Juliet, a further examination reveals that his love for her was deep and sincere, at least much deeper and more sincere than it was for Rosaline. First, the mere fact that Romeo falls in love with Juliet so soon after pining over Rosaline in no way shows that his initial love for Juliet is shallow. It is possible that Romeo’s love for Rosaline was only surface deep and that, upon meeting Juliet, he learns what true love is. Second, although Romeo uses many of the same images when speaking of both women, the form he speaks in changes upon meeting Juliet. As Joseph Kestner writes, in the play’s first two acts, Romeo “speaks with the stereotypical metaphors sanctioned by the tradition of l’amour courtois (courtly love).” An example of this is Romeo’s speech that begins “Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,/ O anything, of nothing first create…” (I.i.176-77). In his first conversation with Juliet, however, Romeo speaks to her in the form of a sonnet, thus modifying the “language of his initial appearance.”[i] “If I profane with my unworthiest hand/ This holy shrine,” he begins, “the gentle sin is this…” (I.v.92-93). Third, it is unfair to say that Romeo initially cares more about sex than love. Yes, he clearly desires to make love to Juliet, but he waits until their weeding night to consummate their love. Moreover, in the balcony scene, the only “satisfaction” he asks for is that of exchanging “thy love’s faithful vow for mine” (II.ii.127).[ii]
Not only is Romeo’s initial love for Juliet greater than were his feelings for Rosaline, but the depth of his love for Juliet grows throughout the play. By the end of the play, there is no doubt that Romeo’s love is deep and mature. One reason to believe that Romeo’s love matures is that his language becomes individualized. As we saw, he moves from speaking with metaphors common to the tradition of courtly love in the play’s first scene to speaking in the form of a sonnet when he first meets Juliet. In the balcony scene, Romeo moves one step further and completely individualizes his language. As Kestner notes, the nature imagery Romeo uses in this scene is “uniquely his own” and “applies solely to his beloved.” “Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,” he declares, “Having some business do entreat her eyes/ To twinkle in their spheres till they return…” (II.ii.15-17). Additionally, the contrast he makes of light and darkness throughout the scene “expresses the radical individualism of the lovers.”[iii] The fact that Romeo’s speech towards Juliet becomes individualized reveals that he is not merely reciting what he has heard others say, but rather that he is expressing the love that flows from his own heart.
More proof that Romeo’s love matures can be found when contrasting his actions in Friar Laurence’s cell in Act III to his reaction to learning about Juliet’s supposed death in Act V. In the former scene, Romeo is so grief-stricken over his banishment that he threatens to kill himself: “O tell me, Friar, tell me,/ In what vile part of this anatomy/ Doth my name lodge? Tell me, that I may sack/ The hateful mansion” (III.iii.105-108). This action, G. Blakemore Evans writes, is a “selfish and thoughtless emotional reaction, without any real consideration for Juliet’s feelings or the difficulty of her position.”[iv] In contrast to this, when Romeo learns of Juliet’s supposed death, he responds with “control, quiet resolution and unhesitating commitment.” As he declares, “Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight./ Let’s see for means” (V.i.34-35). As Evans notes, after coming to believe that Juliet is dead, Romeo believes that “there is nothing left worth living for, and we can now accept his determination to die for love as the supreme expression of a commitment that, like Juliet’s, ‘is as boundless as the sea.’”[v]
Romeo, it turns out, is a genuine exemplar of romantic love. His love for Juliet is deep and sincere from the moment they meet, and it only grows as the play progresses. Lovers would do well to learn from Romeo. He teaches the importance that poetry and passion have in love. Love without these elements is bland and second-rate. He also shows that love, true love, is greater than and is to be coveted more than power, prestige, and even life itself.
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Evans, G. Blakemore Evans, ed. Romeo and Juliet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Nardo, Don, ed. Readings on Romeo and Juliet. San Diego, Greenhaven Press, 1998.
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[i] Joseph Kestner, “The Play’s Spirit Retained in Musical and Artistic Versions”; quoted in Don Nardo, ed., Readings on Romeo and Juliet (San Diego, Greenhaven Press, 1998), 169-70.
[ii] Ann J. Cook, “Social Restrictions Against Illicit Union in Romeo and Juliet”; quoted in Don Nardo, ed., Readings on Romeo and Juliet (San Diego, Greenhaven Press, 1998), 103.
[iii] Joseph Kestner, “The Play’s Spirit Retained in Musical and Artistic Versions”; quoted in Don Nardo, ed., Readings on Romeo and Juliet (San Diego, Greenhaven Press, 1998), 170.
[iv] G. Blakemore Evans, ed., Romeo and Juliet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 27.
[v] Ibid., 28.