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There are many themes in Romeo and Juliet; we'll look at the major ones here. You'll notice that some themes contradict each other-it's up to you to decide which ones are true, and to find evidence to support your position.
Love is explored in different ways in the play. Here are some of them:
• Love vs. Hate
The play contrasts Romeo and Juliet's love against their families' hate as illustrated by the feud. In the Prologue, we're told that their love is stronger than the hatred of the feud, but it's a bitter struggle. Hatred is strong enough to separate the lovers, kill Mercutio, Tybalt, and Paris, banish Romeo, and finally force Romeo and Juliet to commit suicide. But love is even stronger: nothing can kill the love between Romeo and Juliet, and this finally triumphs.
• False Love vs. True Love
At the beginning of the play, Romeo's lost in a false love for Rosaline. He doesn't know her or have any relationship with her, so he's created artificial feelings about her. The Nurse and Mercutio also have false or incomplete ideas about true love. They both link it exclusively to sex.
Romeo and Juliet's love is a pure, true love. They love each other emotionally, spiritually, and sexually. They are committed to each other in marriage, and are willing to die rather than be unfaithful to one another.
• Romantic Love
This play is a wonderful example of Courtly Love or Romantic Love. Until the end of the 14th century, the idea of marrying for love was almost unheard of. Marriages were arranged for social, economic, and political reasons. Romantic Love came into being in the French courts, and it had very strict rules: the woman with whom the man chose to be in love had to be unobtainable (if she was married to someone else, that was good: if she died, that was even better), and both of the romantic lovers must be chaste. The whole idea was to be pure and pine away for someone.
This is exactly what Romeo is doing for Rosaline at the beginning of the story. Even though Romeo and Juliet share their love and they sleep together once, there are Romantic obstacles in their way. They are from enemy families; Juliet will be forced to marry someone else. Finally, each of them dies pining for a love that is absolutely unobtainable because his or her partner is dead.
Could Romeo and Juliet have become a happy, middle-aged married couple? Nobody in Shakespeare's audience would have wondered. The whole point is that their love is Romantic, and therefore cannot be fulfilled.
2. WHAT CAUSES THE LOVERS TO DIE?
The deaths of Romeo and Juliet can be explained in several ways.
In the Prologue, we're told that the lovers are "star-crossed," which implies that fate has it in for them. The number of fateful coincidences and accidents in the play are too numerous to miss: Romeo finds out about the Capulets' party from an illiterate servant; he winds up in the Capulets' orchard; Mercutio is killed under his arm-the list goes on and on. Every plan that the lovers make is thwarted. They're destined to die, and nothing can stop it.
Some readers feel that there's a power beyond fate that has a role in the outcome of the story. Since the play takes place in a Christian context, this power can be thought of as God, or Providence. Romeo, Juliet, and Friar Lawrence all call on this higher power to help them; Friar Lawrence calls the deaths "a work of heaven." We can believe that some benevolent power is working to change the Montagues' and Capulets' hatred to love-and it succeeds.
The Catholic church (and to some extent, the Protestant) in Shakespeare's day believed that love of God was pure, selfless, and good. Love that gratified selfish desires was bad. Over and over, Friar Lawrence warns that "these violent delights have violent ends," and he's proven correct.
Some readers feel that Romeo's impetuousness (to passionately love Juliet, and recklessly kill Tybalt, Paris and himself), Tybalt's hate, Capulet's blindness, and Juliet's dishonesty work together to bring the lovers' downfall.
3. A SENSE OF ORDER VS. CIVIL DISTURBANCES
The feuding and public fighting in Verona's streets is such a serious offense that Romeo and Juliet's lives must be sacrificed to restore order and pay for this injustice.
In comedy, characters tend to form bonds; in tragedy, they become isolated. The most obvious example in this play is Juliet: she is abandoned by her parents, her Nurse, the Friar, and finally by Romeo.
5. INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE
This theme is followed in two ways: we see the impetuous actions of the innocent lovers contrasted to the helpless wisdom of their parents and advisors; and we see Romeo and Juliet grow from innocence to experience.
Most of us talk similarly and use the same vocabulary most of the time. But in Romeo and Juliet, each character's language tells us what social class they're in, whom they're talking to, what mood they're in, and if their feelings are genuine. As a character matures, his or her words are more expressive, better chosen.