7 Characters

Characters’ Differing Definitions of Love 

The Story section of this study demonstrates that Romeo and Juliet consists of a complex series of events. As in real life, two factors determine what happens. The first is an extra-human dimension unknown to the characters—Fate or Fortune, Chance or God— over which the characters have no influence or control.

Character itself is the second determinant of events. Most of the characters with speaking parts are governed at different times by different emotions; few if any are one-dimensional or fixed. Characters learn or don’t learn, grow or stagnate, follow advice or ignore it. They adapt to changing circumstances—the flux of events—or they don’t. You’ll understand Shakespeare’s achievement in this respect if you compare this cartoon rendition of Romeo and Juliet with the original. Each box in the cartoon depicts a moment when characters and action are fixed in time and place.

By contrast, in Romeo and Juliet, as in most drama, characters change and develop. By providing information cumulatively and gradually about significant characters, the flow of events reveals the complexities, power and subtleties of human interchanges. In Romeo and Juliet, the chief of these is love in its many variations.

Contrary to popular belief, in Shakespeare’s play there is no easy acceptance of romantic love as an ideal. Instead, there is a strong interrogation of love as a multi-layered phenomenon, conveyed by the characters’ often conflicting and contrasting assumptions. It is only after true love has been defined that it is celebrated. The loss of true love comprises the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

1. Love Defined as Courtly Romance: Romeo

When we first meet Romeo he is the unhappy lover of Rosaline. As such he embodies the ideal of courtly love, a concept that came to prominence in  European literature and art of the eleventh century, where it helped to shape the externals of manners and marital relationships for the knightly classes.

Figure 28. Courtly love by Master of the Codex Manesse (ca. 1306-1377) by Ulrich von Singenberg. Public domain

Courtly love remained prominent in Renaissance love poetry, including collections of sonnets by the English poets Spenser, Sidney, Daniel, Drayton and Shakespeare. Under the ‘code’ of courtly love, the lover courted a lady who, despite his pleas and service, remained cruel, fickle, rejecting and demanding. Romeo plays out this role in his passion for Juliet’s cousin Rosaline.

In the play that Shakespeare wrote, Rosaline is an off-stage presence. She appears briefly in Zeffirelli’s movie, and is the lead in an (un-Shakespearean?) movie released in 2022.[1] In Romeo and Juliet, it’s appropriate that the audience has no opportunity to assess Rosaline as a ‘real’ character. She remains forever a creation of Romeo’s imagination—a shadowy, partially existent figure whose function is to highlight the bright reality of his love for Juliet.

As Rosaline’s rejected and suffering suitor, Romeo is true in every respect to the stereotype of a courtly lover. Benvolio’s and Montague’s descriptions of his unhappiness (Act 1, scene 1, lines 116-40) could have come straight out of Guillaume de Lorris’s allegory, The Romance of the Rose (ca. 1230), a model for the medieval literature on this theme. Romeo is sleepless, depressed (melancholy), solitary, and inactive. In daytime, he stays in his bed chamber, which (like a modern teenager) he has made into what his father calls ‘an artificial night’ (line 138). Romeo’s account of his feelings to Benvolio deploys all the courtly love conventions: “love as malady, as worship, as war, as conquest” (Mahood 21). Mahood writes further that the sado-masochism of the courtly code, by which it mingled aggression and submission, appears in Romeo’s use of paradoxes and oxymorons. A paradox is a contradiction that highlights a truth, and an oxymoron is a short, often two-word, paradox, for example:

O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep that is not what it is.
This love feel I that feel no love in this. (Act 1, scene 1, lines 183-187)

Some of these oxymorons may hint at ambivalence in Romeo’s feelings for Rosaline. According to him love is, ‘A madness most discreet, / A choking gall and a preserving sweet’ (lines 200-201). Moreover, there is a self-consciousness in what he says that deepens the impression of inner division.

Tut, I have left myself. I am not here.
This is not Romeo, he’s some other where. (Act 1, scene 1, lines 205-206)

That Romeo may be attracted to play-acting the role of courtly lover as much as he is to Rosaline is reinforced in Act 1, scene 4, when the young men are on their way to the Capulet ball. Romeo wittily contrasts his sadness with the joyful adventurousness of the other masquers:

Give me a torch. I am not for this ambling.
Being but heavy I will bear the light. (Act 1, scene 4, lines 11-12)

Romeo’s verbal dexterity in scenes 1 and 4, including his puns in which a single word exploits at least two different meanings, indicates his divided condition. Part of him is in love with Rosaline but another part detects self-deception. This sequence demonstrates Romeo’s immaturity at the beginning of the play before he meets Juliet.

The speech that closes scene 4 when Romeo announces his premonition of death (lines 115-120), is his most powerful, because it is spoken by a whole self, not by a divided and play-acting one. The way the inner life of the feelings and mind suddenly encounters the harshness of fate in this speech is a model for the whole play. Romeo and Juliet’s delight in each other is destined to encounter the deadly violence generated by long feuding in a feverish Italian city.

2. Love Defined as Sex: the Capulet Servants

The lowly social status of Peter and the other Capulet serving men is marked by their speaking in prose rather than verse. For the retainers Samson and Gregory, who also speak prose, sex is a path to the power that their inferior place in the household denies them. In the opening scene they boast of their hopes of “cutting off the heads of the maids” of the house of Montague (Act 1, scene 1, lines 22-25); and their jokes equate their swords with their penises: “SAMSON: My naked weapon is out” (lines 33-34). That a bawdy scene among servants should open a love tragedy in which the participants belong to a more respected class testifies to the limitless scope of Shakespeare’s investigation of love. It’s no surprise when Abraham and another Montague servant take up the challenge.

3. Love Defined as Illusion: Mercutio

For this drivelling love is like a great
natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his
bauble in a hole. (Act 2, scene 4, lines 93-95)

It is a sign of Mercutio’s thematic importance that Shakespeare much expanded the character that he found in Arthur Brooke’s  Tragicall History of Romeo and Juliet. Here Mercutio is neither a satirist nor a misogynist but a rake characterised by his icy hands:

Even as a lion would among the lambs be bold,
Such was among the bashful maids Mercutio to behold. (lines 257-258)

I recommend that you watch John McEnery’s performance in Zeffirelli’s film—it captures Mercutio’s creative intensity, full of energy and bordering on madness.

Two assumptions underlie Mercutio’s satire of romantic love:

  1. Love is an illusion enhanced by poetry and drama.
  2. Love (so-called) is driven in reality by the physical need to mate and reproduce.

Together with the Capulet servants whose function is similar but less poetically expressed, Mercutio intellectualises an antithesis to the central celebration of romantic love in Romeo and Juliet. He identifies sex, Romeo’s feelings for Rosaline, and human aspirations in general with fantasies and dreams. His description of the fairy queen Mab while the young men are on their way to the ball (Act 1, scene 4, lines 58-100) is an imaginative tour de force that satirises a wide sample of humanity.

painting of and ethereal Queen Mab, the fairy from Mercutio's famous speech. She holds a wand over a group of fairies clustered within tree roots in the forest
Figure 29. Queen Mab (1900) by Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920). Painting. Public domain

Romeo tries to deflate Mercutio’s high-flown philosophy, but without avail:

ROMEO: Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace.
Thou talk’st of nothing.
MERCUTIO: True, I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy. (lines 101-105)

In Act 2, scene 1 Mercutio gives this beautiful but nihilistic idea a different shape. Self-appointed as a magician, he ‘conjures’ Romeo to rejoin him and Benvolio in prolonging their night-time frolic.

Here Mercutio’s conjuring speeches brilliantly satirise the courtly love conventions explored and exploited through Romeo’s love for Rosaline in Act 1. He dismisses lovers’ melancholy, their sighing, their writing of love poems, their myths of Venus and Cupid, together with the love god’s archery. Under the convention of the ‘beautiful lady,’ courtly love poetry praised the lady’s physical charms in order, beginning with her hair and ending with her toes. Mercutio’s parody reshapes the list so that it ends with Rosaline’s ‘quivering thigh / and the demesnes that there adjacent lie’ (lines 22-23).

Mercutio’s dismissal of the conventions of courtly love coincides ironically with Romeo’s own abandoning of them in his newfound true love for Juliet. This is Romeo’s first long step towards maturity.

Explore the Text

Three different versions of Mercutio are presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company, showing different styles of performing Shakespeare over the years

Which Mercutio do you prefer?

In Act 2, scene 4, Mercutio further demonstrates his brilliance with words when he meets first Benvolio, secondly Romeo, and thirdly the Nurse with her attendant Peter.

The exchanges among the three young men are multi-layered. Complex puns and jokes occupy the surface, but Mercutio’s underlying views are important, both for the themes and for the play’s developing plot. The humour of this part of Act 2, scene 4 isn’t harmless—it is satire with a hurtful edge. But it is packed with energy, and the friendship between Mercutio and Romeo—who is his match in wit if not in bawdiness (i.e. obscenity)—is full of goodwill.

In a heart-breaking sudden switch from love and wit, Mercutio’s death in the first scene of Act 3 is one of the most horrifying in all Shakespeare’s plays.

“Mercutio’s Death in Act 3, scene 1” by Zefirelli [1:14 mins]:

Neither Mercutio’s physical vitality nor his delight in the intellect can save him. At first, neither he nor the audience can believe in his death. It is unimaginable, and he struggles against it with all his verbal creativity.

You can see a more recent image of the dying Mercutio by the Royal Shakespeare Company here.

4. Love Defined as Hate: Tybalt 

When they next meet, Tybalt’s challenge is the most radical reverse definition of the word ‘love’ in the play:

Romeo, the love I bear thee can afford
No better term than this: thou art a villain. (Act 3, scene 1, lines 61-62)

Romeo’s reply restores the word’s meaning:

Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee
Doth much excuse the appertaining rage
To such a greeting. (Act 3, scene 1, lines 63-65)

For Shakespeare, Tybalt is an unusually simple characterisation. Driven by competitiveness, aggression, and prickly self-regard, he offers a contrast to the love that draws the play’s other young men together in friendship.

5. Love Defined as Friendship: Benvolio

Benvolio’s name, read as Italian-ti voglio bene; means ‘I am friendly towards you’ (Weis 120). Interpreted according to its Latin stem words (bene voleo), it means ‘I wish well’, ‘I am well intentioned’, and by extension, ‘good will’. The name is Shakespeare’s invention and it neatly sums up Benvolio’s character and his role, which is likewise significant in Brooke’s Tragicall History. In Acts 1-3 of Romeo and Juliet, Benvolio is the voice of reason, opposed to the extremities of both love and war.

Benvolio enters the play as peacemaker between the Capulet and Montague servants. His first line:  ‘Part fools, put up your swords; you know not what you do’ (Act 1, scene 1, lines 65-66) quotes words of Christ at his arrest—Put up again thy sword into his place (Matthew 26:52 and John 18:11); and on the cross—Father, forgive them: for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). Benvolio draws his sword to part the Capulet and Montague servants who are already fighting. Tybalt erupts on the scene and accelerates the violence despite Benvolio’s plea:

I do but keep the peace. Put up thy sword,
Or manage it to part these men with me. (lines 69-70)

Benvolio’s and Tybalt’s fight is symbolic. They are each other’s opposites.

Benvolio’s next mediation is as the Montagues’ agent in searching out a cause for their son Romeo’s melancholy. He feels for Romeo’s suffering, ‘I, coz, I rather weep … At thy good heart’s oppression’ (lines 189-191), and Romeo acknowledges:

This love that thou hast shown,
Doth add more grief to too much of mine own. (lines 195-196)

The two men’s friendship is mutual and enduring. As the scene ends Benvolio promises that he’ll keep trying to persuade Romeo to forget.

In all his later appearances, motivated by friendship and reason, Benvolio continues to campaign for peace.

 Benvolio’s campaign for peace
Act 1, scene 2, lines 45-57; 85-104 He suggests that Romeo will find a new love at the Capulets’ ball
Act 1, scene 4 On the way to the ball Mercutio and Romeo are the main speakers. Mainly a listener, Benvolio stands in for the audience. The voice of common sense, he advises the party-crashers to stay for just one dance (lines 3-10); and that they should make haste or the ball will be over (lines 104-105).
Act 2, scene 1 Benvolio is again the audience’s proxy, listening to Mercutio’s flights of fancy as he searches for Romeo. Always the voice of reason, he points out that Romeo has probably hidden among the trees, where they have no hope of finding him (lines 3-32).
Act 2, scene 4 Benvolio once again proves his friendship for Romeo, in his confidence that Romeo can and will answer Tybalt’s challenge (line 9). He objects to Mercutio’s pornographic language but without lessening the flow (lines 90-96).
Act 3, scene 1 Benvolio opts for peace through a kaleidoscope of changing circumstances.

  • He seeks to persuade Mercutio to leave the street, where they are likely to get into a fight with the Capulets.
  • He advises the fighters to withdraw to ‘some private place’ (line 50) where they can avoid the Prince’s men. Mercutio rejects both pieces of advice.
  • He joins Romeo in intervening to stop the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt (lines 85-89).
  • Off-stage, he cares for the dying Mercutio and then announces his death (lines 118-120).
  • Still Romeo’s friend, he advises Romeo to flee following Tybalt’s death (lines 134-37).
  • Benvolio’s role in Romeo and Juliet ends with his summary of the fighting to Prince Escalus (lines 154-176). He ends his summary with the assertion, ‘This is the truth, or let Benvolio die’ (line 177).

Benvolio’s voice of reason and advocacy for peace is doomed to be ignored. Still, it is a steadfast reference point for appraising other characters, especially Romeo.

6. Love Defined as Material Wealth: Capulet and Lady Capulet 


Capulet’s age, hair-trigger temper and ingrained hatred of the Montagues are introduced at his first appearance when he calls for a sword that is too heavy so that he can join in the street battle against the Montagues. His wife mocks him: ‘A crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword?’ (Act 1, scene 1, line 77). Although his conversation with his cousin at the ball suggests that he is in his fifties (Act 1, scene 5, lines 36-45), his changes of mood, reversals of decisions and fluid apprehension of time suggest that he is older. He wavers between flashes of elderly prudence and bouts of anger and folly. If Capulet ever learns the wisdom that convention attributes to age, it is only after his daughter’s suicide.

You can see a number of older Capulet depictions on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s page on Romeo and Juliet‘s relationships—click on the icon for Lord Capulet in the character map.

Lady Capulet’s age is an issue too, because the evidence is contradictory. She claims to have become Juliet’s mother at about thirteen—‘much upon these years / That you are now a maid’ (Act 1, scene 3, lines 78-79). She must therefore be in her late twenties. However, in Act 5 the sight of Juliet’s dead body leads her to say:

O me, this sight of death is as a bell,
That warns my old age to a sepulchre. (Act 5, scene 3, lines 214-215)

Either her daughter’s death has aged her mentally and emotionally, or she is referring to a future old age, as may indeed be implied by ‘warns.’ First and foremost, Lady Capulet adheres to the demands of dynasty and property. In advocating Juliet’s advantageous marriage to Paris (Act 1, scene 3, lines 80-100), she uses a string of materialist metaphors. She represents Paris as a handsome book for which Juliet is the proper cover, bringing into play metaphors that are both commercial and possessive:

That book in many’s eyes doth share the glory
That in gold clasps locks in the golden story.
So shall you share all that he doth possess,
By having him, making yourself no less. (lines 97-100)

Lady Capulet assumes that her daughter will be an obedient wife, fixated like herself on money and status. Her mercenary, socially conformist world view is the opposite of the spontaneous and equal love between Juliet and Romeo.

Modern versions of Romeo and Juliet usually emphasise Lady Capulet’s youth. See for example, the first and second images of Lady Capulet in the Romeo and Juliet‘s relationships resource (click on the icon for Lady Capulet in the character map).

In Act 1, scene 5, Capulet’s response to Tybalt’s anger at Romeo’s presence at the ball escalates in a few lines from reasoned argument (lines 74-83), through enforcement of authority and defence of the occasion (lines 86-91), to uncontrolled fury (lines 93-99). The confrontation between uncle and nephew contrasts in tone with Romeo’s first sight of Juliet, which precedes it, and the lovers’ first conversation, which follows it.

The Capulets’ responses to Tybalt’s death characterise them further.

 Lord and Lady Capulet’s responses to Tybalt’s death
Act 3, scene 1 True to her prioritising of the family into which she has married, Lady Capulet contests Benvolio’s truthful account by fantasising an attack by twenty Montagues (lines 180-81). She demands Romeo’s execution as retaliation.
Act 3, scene 4 Tybalt’s death changes Capulet’s attitude to Paris’s suit. Contrary to his considerate attitude to his daughter in Act 1, in  Act 3, Scene 4 he is ready to make ‘a desperate tender’ (bold offer) to Paris of Juliet’s love: ‘I think she will be ruled/ In all respects by me; nay, more, I doubt it not.’ (lines 13-14). This scene emphasises Capulet’s age:  he has to ask what day it is, and he wavers between Wednesday and Thursday for the planned wedding.
Act 3, Scene 5 When Lady Capulet tells Juliet of her imminent marriage to Paris in Act 3, Scene 5, the speeches of both are packed with irony, especially with reference to Romeo. Lady Capulet tries to ease what she sees as her daughter’s excessive grieving for Tybalt by arranging a revenge killing:

I’ll send to one in Mantua
Where that same banished runagate doth live,
Shall give him such an unaccustomed dram
That he shall soon keep Tybalt company;
And then I hope thou wilt be satisfied. (Act 3, scene 5, lines 93-97)

The Capulets are at their worst in their reactions to Juliet’s refusal to marry Paris.

Unlike the Nurse who defends Juliet, Lady Capulet:

  • surrenders Juliet to her father’s anger (line 129);
  • wishes her dead (with terrible irony given the outcome; line 145);
  • utters an ultimate rejection (lines 214-215)

Despite his daughter’s pleading, when we meet him again in Act 4, scene 2, Capulet is arranging the wedding. Juliet’s apparent capitulation, which follows, encourages him to continue with preparations throughout the night and he and Lady Capulet are still working at 3 a.m. (Act 4, scene 4).  But in scene 5 the Nurse discovers Juliet’s apparently dead body. Paris and Friar Laurence enter, and the characters give way to grief—some perhaps more for themselves than for Juliet.

Of all the culpable elders in Romeo and Juliet, only the Capulets experience their child’s death twice. Do you think that they deserve this fate?

7. Love Defined as Motherhood and the Body: The Nurse

Mercutio and the Nurse are opposites in the way they regard love. While the brilliant Mercutio has nothing but contempt for ‘this drivelling love [who] is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole’ (see above), the garrulous Nurse delights in all the bodily aspects of love.  Her worldview is so dominated by the physical that when she insists, ‘Nay, I do bear a brain’ (Act 1, scene 3, line 31), the audience will laugh because this seems doubtful. More than might be expected, the Nurse’s behaviour later in the play justifies her self-description.

Repetitions expand the Nurse’s speeches to lengths that often exceed their substance. She is, however, a skillful raconteur. [2]

Explore the Text

Act 1, Scene 3, lines 18-83 are the Nurse’s self-introduction to the audience:

  1. How many different stories (yarns) can you find in this speech?
  2. What losses in her family, mentioned in this speech, deepen the Nurse’s characterisation with an underlying sadness?
  3. Which of her stories reveals the Nurse’s delight in the body and sex?

The Nurse, who considers herself highly respectable, confronts her antithesis, Mercutio, when she meets Romeo on Juliet’s behalf in Act 2, scene 4, lines 111-145. She is shocked and angered by Mercutio’s sexual jokes aimed at her, and there is a strong contrast between his wit and physical liveliness and the Nurse’s bulk as Peter (probably played by Will Kempe, the clown of Shakespeare’s acting company) dances around her.

Figure 30. Mercutio bidding farewell to Juliet’s nurse (ca.1820s) by John Masey Wright. Oil on canvas. Public domain

The Nurse’s fury at her loss of dignity continues after Mercutio has left.  Romeo tries to placate her by critiquing Mercutio’s verbosity:

A gentleman, Nurse, that loves to hear himself talk and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to[3] in a month. (Act 2, scene 4, lines 149-151)

This is ironical, considering Mercutio’s brave battle against Tybalt on Romeo’s behalf, which will follow on this same eventful Monday. The Nurse hurries back to Juliet with Romeo’s message arranging their wedding. The two scenes in Romeo and Juliet in which the Nurse delivers news of Romeo bring their contrasting concepts of love into sharp relief. Act 2, scene 5 is a delightful comedy, in which the Nurse teases Juliet by holding back the news of Romeo’s wedding plans. Elsewhere Juliet outstrips the limitations to be expected of her youthfulness, but her view of ‘old folks’ conforms with these limitations:

But old folks, many feign as they were dead,
Unwieldy, slow, heavy and pale as lead. (Act 2, scene 5, lines 16-17)

Act 2, scene 5 makes comedy out of intergenerational misunderstanding, which is a major theme in Romeo and Juliet. Juliet’s opening soliloquy (lines 1-19), a masterpiece of airborne poetry, contrasts with the Nurse’s prose list of a lover’s proper physical attributes, including a misplaced reference—‘flower of courtesy’ (line 43)—to the courtly code. Act 3, scene 2, the second major scene between Juliet and the Nurse, is far from comic. This time the Nurse withholds the news of Tybalt’s slaying, not to tease but as a result of her upset and chronic confusion. A servant of the Capulets, initially she is more upset by Tybalt’s death than by Romeo’s banishment, but moved by Juliet’s despair, she recovers: she will find Romeo and bring him to Juliet. The Nurse continues her staunch support for the young couple during her visit to Friar Laurence’s cell (Act 3, scene 3, lines 85-174). She is at her best when she revives Romeo, who is lying on the ground in despair. Her metaphors (lines 88-90) identify his recovering with an erection(!), and, at least according to the first Quarto, it is the Nurse, not the Friar, who later prevents him from stabbing himself (lines 105-107). ‘Disappointing’ is a word often applicable to characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies. They default on their promises, they fall short of their aspirations, or they place self-interest above loyalty. To the end of Act 3, the Nurse is a comic rather than a tragic figure. However in Juliet’s moment of greatest need, after her parents have rejected her, the Nurse advises her to marry Paris:

Beshrew my very heart,
I think you happy in this second match,
For it excels your first; or if it did not,
Your first is dead, or ‘twere as good he were
As living here and you no use of him. (Act 3, scene 5, lines 234-238)

Since Juliet is already married to Romeo, the Nurse’s lack of logic, earlier presented as a comic foible but now a sign of capitulation, prevails in this advice. It is true to the Nurse’s characterisation that it continues to equate love with sex.

8. Love Defined as a Conventional Marriage: Paris 

Paris’ title, ‘County,’ and his membership of Prince Escalus’ family mark him as a desirable marriage prospect for a wealthy merchant family such as the Capulets. When he brings his marriage suit to Capulet he is confident of success, and expects only a short delay. As he points out, ‘Younger than she [Juliet] are happy mothers made’ (Act 1, scene 2, line 12). Following Tybalt’s death, Paris visits again and Capulet consents to a rapid wedding (Act 3, scene 4, lines 12-35; see above). Paris first speaks to Juliet herself at Friar Laurence’s cell, when she is distraught because of Romeo’s banishment and her rejection by her family (Act 4, scene, 1, lines 18-43). Their exchange is conducted in stichomythia (line-for-line dialogue) and lumbered with rhetorical devices, here used to mark the formal distance between the speakers.

In Act 5, Paris brings flowers to Juliet’s tomb:

The obsequies that I for thee will keep,
Nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep. (Act 5, scene 3, lines 16-17)

Explore the Text

  1. If Paris had lived, how likely is it, do you think, that he would have kept his pledge of perpetual mourning for Juliet?
  2. How far is he acting the part of the grief-stricken courtly lover?
  3. Compare Paris’s and Romeo’s intentions in visiting Juliet’s tomb.

9. Love and Ethics: Friar Lawrence

Friar Lawrence’s opening soliloquy in Act 2, scene 3 is packed with his knowledge of herbs and medicines. He links his observations to simple philosophical tenets, which the readers in Shakespeare’s audience would have recognised as sententiae or poetical ‘morals.’ An example is:

The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb,
What is her burying grave, that is her womb. (lines 9-10)

If you consider these words in relation to Romeo and Juliet you’ll see that they are directly relevant to the ending, where the hope of rebirth is a source of consolation. Similar relevance can be found in others of the Friar’s pronouncements, and his herbs play an essential part in the plot. As Romeo’s counsellor, Friar Lawrence gives sound advice. He approves Romeo’s abandonment of his passion for Rosaline, which another sententia attributes to the power of the sex drive: ‘Young men’s love then lies / Not truly in their hearts but in their eyes’ (Act 2, scene 3, lines 71-72). In yet another addition to Shakespeare’s investigation of love (line 77), Friar Lawrence distinguishes Romeo’s ‘doting’ (his courtly infatuation with Rosaline) from his ‘loving’ (his marriage commitment to Juliet). He seeks to moderate Romeo’s despair over Prince Escalus’s sentence of banishment:

I’ll give thee armour to keep off that word,
Adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy. (Act 3, scene 3, lines 57-58)

After Romeo tries to stab himself, Friar Lawrence speaks at length (lines 118-169) about his qualities and advantages:

  • Romeo is a man, not a woman or an animal.
  • His death would ‘slay thy lady that in thy life lives’.
  • His humanity uniquely mingles the qualities of heaven and earth.
  • He has qualities—‘thy shape, thy love, thy wit’—that are unique.
  • Suicide is a cowardly and unmanly act.
  • Romeo’s suicide would break his marriage vow to cherish Juliet.
  • Suicide is a paradox—self defence identical with self-murder.
  • Romeo has many reasons to be happy.

Most modern productions abridge Friar Lawrence’s long speech, in part no doubt because of its sexist assumptions. However, early audiences presumably welcomed the counsel that it offers.

Explore the Text

It’s surely astounding that these arguments against suicide should invite serious consideration in a tragedy that ends in two suicides that are ultimately presented as noble, loyal and brave.

  • Can you suggest any reason for this contradiction?
  • What, if any, are its effects on an audience’s responses to the ending?


10. Romeo and Juliet’s Spiritual Love

First meeting

In Section 1 above we considered Romeo’s ‘courtly’ love for Rosaline. His first encounter with Juliet in Act 1, Scene 5, lines 48-60 enacts the difference between a love seated in the imagination and a love seated in the heart.

Before he arrives at the Capulet ball, Romeo’s attention is on his sufferings, but his first sight of Juliet fixes his attention on her. There is a qualitative leap in the poetry of love as Juliet appears to him as the essence of light: ‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright.’ His intention, to ‘make blessed my rude hand’ by touching Juliet’s hand (line 104), introduces a stream of religious imagery that resurfaces through the lovers’ later soliloquies and encounters. The ten lines of Romeo’s epiphany incorporate a premonition of tragedy to come—‘Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.’ Yet metaphors of light and darkness, of white and black culminate in the suggestion that Juliet personifies the Platonic Idea, Beauty itself, of which all earthly beauties are merely copies: ‘For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.’ (line 60)

The interweaving of earthly with divine love, the raising of the former to the self-transcending level of the latter, continues in the sonnet that the lovers share as their first spoken communication. The beautiful, elaborate structure of Romeo’s and Juliet’s sonnet has a thematic importance, in that its orderliness embodies a consistent quality of their love. One of Juliet’s lines incorporates this quality:

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this (Act 1, scene 5, lines 108-109)

‘Mannerly’ plays on manus, the Latin word for ‘hand,’ and on its adjective manuarius, meaning ‘belonging to the hand.’ This vocabulary imparts further unity to the sonnet’s first eight lines (two quatrains), which refer constantly to hands and end with the meeting of the lovers’ hands. Meanwhile, the surface meaning of ‘mannerly’— ‘decorous’—conveys the message that Romeo’s and Juliet’s love is far from being a disruptive or unrestrained passion. It isn’t the kind of love portrayed by Romantic poets and modern popular fiction writers.  In speaking their sonnet, with its emphases on manners, loyalty and devotion, the young lovers establish a separate and unique decorum. This decorum is opposed to both the medieval and Renaissance courtly love conventions and the social and materialistic priorities of the other attendees at the Capulet ball. Whereas Verona is disrupted by violent conflicts that Prince Escalus cannot restrain, the lovers’ reality has a single and unquestioned governor—their love for each other.

Finally, the wordplay on ‘mannerly’ is appropriate to the speaker, Juliet. Like Romeo, she has a youthful interest in word games. The verbal play between the lovers in the sonnet dramatises the instantaneous meeting of their minds and implies that they are intellectual equals. In the Elizabethan context, where sonnets and love poetry in general were the domain of male poets, this is a radical and disruptive idea.

Explore the Text

Track the rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet in the lovers’ first words to each other—abab etc. (Act 1, scene 5, lines 104-121).

Trace the accompanying kissing, first of their hands and secondly of their lips.

Find examples in the sonnet of religious vocabulary and thought.

Consider the idea that the sonnet and the lovers’ stylised gestures are a verbal rendition of the dance setting.

Broadening our scope, how like a dance are the scenes in Acts 1-3 of Romeo’s and Juliet’s courtship, wedding and consummation?

The ‘Balcony’ Scene

Figure 31. The farewell of Romeo and Juliet (1845) by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). Public domain

Romeo and Juliet next meet in the ‘balcony’ scene, possibly the most referred-to scene in literature, and an inspiration for poets, artists, musicians and composers, as well as parodists, satirists, comic writers and comedians, in succeeding centuries.[4] In most modern printings the scene is numbered Act 2, scene 2, but Levenson’s Oxford edition follows the Quartos by continuing it as scene 1. When Romeo steps forward from his hiding place, his words comparing Juliet with the sun are the antithesis to Mercutio’s departing depiction of what he portrays as Romeo’s purely sexual feelings for Rosaline: ‘O that she were / An open-arse, thou a poperin pear!’ (Act 2, scene 1, lines 40-41).

In modern productions, the balcony scene begins in darkness, except for lighting placed near Juliet. Depending on how broadly we apply De Witt’s sketch of The Swan (see the introduction to this Pressbook, ‘Beyond the Bard’), the ‘balcony’ in the Globe may have been one in a row of spaces, the mimorum aedes, or ‘actors’ room,’ overlooking the stage. Since performances in public theatres took place in the afternoon, Romeo’s opening soliloquy (Weis ed. lines 1-9) and later references by the lovers guide the audience to imagine a dark setting lit only by a fading moon. In Romeo’s soliloquy light-in-darkness imagery unites with the physical setting.

Explore the Text

Find the following metaphors or similes in Romeo’s words to Juliet:

  • the rising sun
  • the most beautiful stars
  • daylight contrasted with lamp-light
  • a bright angel
  • a light that illuminates his darkness.

Romeo’s soliloquy reveals that a unified self has replaced his former self-conscious inner divisions. It is a linguistic confirmation of his assertion in the two lines that open Act 2, that Juliet is his ‘heart, the ‘centre’ of the ‘dull earth,’ that is, his existence. Accordingly, in the balcony scene Romeo is fully centred. All his powers are engaged in expressing his love. At line 210 he refers to Juliet as ‘my soul.’ His first sight of her on the balcony inspires a poetic flourish, but accompanied by translation into a simple, emotionally intense repetition: ‘It is my lady, O, it is my love / O that she knew she were!’ (lines 10-11). Whereas earlier we have seen Romeo applying his powers of invention in frivolous wit-duels with Mercutio, now he devotes his creative talents to hyperbolic praises of Juliet’s eyes; straining poetic invention to its utmost limits in an attempt to approximate to the intensity of his feelings. His elaborate verbal flight is far more intense than the speech conventions prescribed by courtly love.

Juliet’s language in this scene likewise transcends convention. Rather than straining the limits of poetic expression, it is an uncomplicated medium for feeling. After she has inadvertently revealed her love while unaware of Romeo’s presence, she consciously rejects the fashionable artifice of an aloof courtly lady as well as the role-playing of conventional courtship:

Fain would I dwell on form, fain, fain deny
What I have spoke; but farewell compliment.
Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay’,
And I will take thy word; yet, if thou swear’st,
Thou mayst prove false. At lovers’ perjuries,
They say, Jove laughs. O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully,
Or if thou think’st I am too quickly won,
I’ll frown and be perverse and say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo, but else not for the world.
In truth, fair Montague, I am too fond,
And therefore thou may’st think my ‘haviour light.
But trust me, gentleman, I’ll prove more true
Than those that have more cunning to be strange. (Act 2, scene 2, lines 90-107)

Juliet’s emotional maturity in contrast with Romeo is seen in the dialogue following. Romeo responds to her honesty by making a solemn vow of his true love:

Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops. (lines 111-113).

But Juliet’s simplicity and directness rejects the artifice in this speech. Her final rejection of any vow at all recognises the incapacity of language to express true and intense feelings. Her own avowal of love, following soon after, is simple in its diction and in the single simile chosen, the sea:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite. (lines 140-142)

Juliet’s generosity embodies the human capacity to love in a manner transcending the possession of a separate self. Towards the end of the scene, Juliet uses bird imagery: she is the falconer and Romeo the falcon (lines 169-195); she is the young mischief-maker, the ‘wanton,’ and Romeo is her ‘bird’ (line 192). These contribute to a pattern of bird and wings imagery and reference, enhancing the airborne and spiritual quality of the lovers’ relationship. This quality appears most strongly in the references to the nightingale and the lark that weave through the scene of their parting (Act 3, scene 5).

 Spiritual Love in Act 5

A few comments on Act 5 will conclude our survey of transcendence, i.e. Shakespeare’s celebration in Romeo and Juliet of a love which, while rejoicing in the body, may surpass mortality. Opening Scene 1, Romeo’s report of a happy dream is a cruelly ironic preparation for the (false) news of Juliet’s death that arrives immediately afterwards:

I dreamt my lady came and found me dead
(Strange dream that gives a dead man leave to think!)
And breathed such life with kisses in my lips
That I revived and was an emperor. (lines 6-10)

The dream invites interpretation on more than one level:

  • Touchingly, it foretells Juliet’s search for poison on Romeo’s dead lips;
  • More deeply, it hints at a triumphant life after death: ‘That I revived and was an emperor’ (line 10).

In Scene 3 Romeo drinks the Apothecary’s poison as a toast to Juliet. This act, which echoes Juliet’s drinking of the Friar’s sleep potion as a toast to Romeo (Act 4, scene 3, line 59), underlines the mutuality of their love.  Lines 90-96 and 101-105 of Romeo’s death speech dwell with tragic irony on the continuing beauty of what he believes is Juliet’s dead body: ‘Why art thou still so fair?’ (line 102). Another suggestion of a life continuing after death takes the form of positive ironies after Romeo has taken the poison: “O true Apothecary!’ (line 119) implies both ‘true to your promise’ and ‘true healer of the malady of life’; ‘Thy drugs are quick’ (line 120) means both ‘fast-acting’ and ‘quickening, life-giving.’ These oxymorons suggest that Romeo’s death is an entrance to a truer life. Subliminally they confirm the promise of his auspicious dream.

Once true love is understood and celebrated in Romeo and Juliet, other crucial themes become prominent. Among these, is the debate over the cause of tragedy, whether fate or inherent fault, and the issues of fidelity in love and parental responsibility. The folly of holding onto grudges, of nurturing hatred in maturity or old age, is mercilessly exposed in the tragic consequences of the Montagues’ and Capulets’ feud in Shakespeare’s play.

  1. Rosaline (2022), directed by Karen Maine and starring Kaitlyn Dever
  2. verbal storyteller
  3. ‘stand to’ means, ‘fight to defend’
  4. The word ‘balcony’ does not occur in Romeo and Juliet and was probably unknown to Shakespeare


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Shakespeare's Major Plays Copyright © 2024 by Cheryl Taylor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.