Themes and Motifs in Romeo and Juliet:


After setting the scene and telling us that the lovers will die, the Chorus calls their fate "piteous" and tells us what we're going to see: "The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love, / And the continuance of their parents' rage, / Which, but their children's end, nought could remove, / Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage" (Prologue, 12). A great part of our pity arises from seeing the children's lives sacrificed to their parents' anger. [Scene Summary]

After the street brawl of the opening scene, Benvolio stays behind to talk with Romeo's parents. Lady Montague (who in the earliest version of the play is designated only as "wife") shows a motherly concern for her son. She asks, "O, where is Romeo? saw you him to-day? / Right glad I am he was not at this fray" (1.1.116-117). Benvolio tells her that he saw Romeo wandering in the woods before dawn, but that because it looked as if Romeo wanted to be left alone, he left him alone. Montague, however, is worried about his son and doesn't believe that Romeo should be left alone. He tells Benvolio that Romeo is often out in the the woods: "Many a morning hath he there been seen, / With tears augmenting the fresh morning dew, / Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs" (1.1.131-133). Not only does Romeo wander about, weeping and sighing, when the sun comes up he locks himself up in his room and closes the shutters, so that it's as dark as night. Montague says, "Black and portentous must this humor prove, / Unless good counsel may the cause remove" (1.1.141-142). In Shakespeare's time, the name of Romeo's condition was "melancholy." We would probably call it "depression," but we would agree with Montague that it's a "portentous . . . humor," a state of mind that will lead to something even worse. And we would also agree that Romeo needs "counsel," that is, advice and someone to talk to.

Benvolio asks if Montague knows the reason for Romeo's problem. Montague answers that he doesn't, though he has often asked. Others have also tried to get Romeo to open up, but he hasn't been willing to talk, so that he is like "the bud bit with an envious worm, / Ere he can spread his sweet leaves to the air, / Or dedicate his beauty to the sun" (1.1.151-153). Montague is comparing his son to a flower bud being eaten away from the inside by a worm, so that he will be ruined before he has a chance to bloom. We don't use such fancy language, but we have the same kind of worries as Montague; any dad would be worried to see his beautiful child eaten alive by depression.

As his father is worriedly talking about him, Romeo appears. Benvolio asks Romeo's parents to step aside so that he can find out what's wrong with Romeo. Benvolio promises that if he doesn't discover what Romeo's problem is, it won't be for lack of trying; he says, "I'll know his grievance, or be much denied" (1.1.157). Romeo's parents are glad their son is going to get some peer counseling, and they leave. As it turns out, though Romeo hasn't been talking with his parents, he immediately tells all of his problems to his friend, Benvolio. [Scene Summary]

When Paris asks Capulet for Juliet's hand in marriage, Capulet describes her as "yet a stranger in the world" (1.2.8), not yet fourteen, and at least two years away from being ready to be a bride. Paris says, "Younger than she are happy mothers made" (1.2.12), and Capulet replies, "And too soon marr'd are those so early made" (1.2.13). Then Capulet asks for a little understanding, saying, "The earth hath swallow'd all my hopes but she, / She is the hopeful lady of my earth" (1.2.14-15). In plain terms, Juliet is Capulet's only living child and his heiress, but the phrase "hopeful lady of my earth" also means that she is the hope around which his world turns. Nevertheless, he urges Paris to woo Juliet and says that "My will to her consent is but a part" (1.2.17), which means that even if he agrees to the marriage, Juliet has the final say. (Later he will have a drastic change of heart about this issue.) Finally, inviting Paris to a feast that night, Capulet says Paris should, "hear all, all see, / And like her most whose merit most shall be: / Which on more view of many, mine, being one, / May stand in number, though in reckoning none" (1.2.30-33). In other words, Paris is invited to check out all the beautiful ladies, and when he does, he may find that Juliet is only one more. It could turn out that when she is among a group of ladies ("stand in number") she won't count for much ("in reckoning none"). Is Capulet hoping Paris will find someone else and stop asking about Juliet? Or is he just being modest about his daughter? It's hard to tell. [Scene Summary]

After Paris asks Capulet for Juliet's hand in marriage, the next scene opens with Lady Capulet saying to the Nurse, "Nurse, where's my daughter? call her forth to me" (1.3.1). The Nurse doesn't go to look for Juliet, but calls out, "What, lamb! what, ladybird! / God forbid! Where's this girl? What, Juliet!" (1.3.4). When Juliet appears, she says to her mother, "Madam, I am here. / What is your will?" (1.3.5-6). Thus we see the contrast between Juliet's relationship with her nurse and her relationship with her mother. The Nurse is the one who calls Juliet nicknames; Lady Capulet is the one whom Juliet addresses as "madam." As the scene progresses, this contrast is heightened. Lady Capulet thinks Juliet is old enough to get married, and wants Juliet to seriously consider Paris' proposal; the Nurse will be happy to see Juliet happily married, but what she really likes to talk about is how cute Juliet was when she was a baby. It's as though Juliet has two mothers, one who adores her no matter what she does, and one who wants her to grow up and do something with her life. [Scene Summary]

At Capulet's feast, Tybalt (nephew of Lady Capulet) is angered by Romeo's presence, and Capulet uses common parental strategies to calm him down, though none of them work very well.

First Capulet politely tries to talk some sense into Tybalt, saying, "Content thee, gentle coz, let him alone; / He bears him like a portly gentleman" (1.5.65-66). "Portly" does not mean "fat," but well-mannered, deserving of respect. And when Capulet calls Tybalt "gentle coz" he's asking Tybalt to be well-mannered, too. "Gentle" has the meaning it retains in the word "gentleman," and "coz" is short and friendly for "cousin."

Despite Capulet's friendly words of wisdom, Tybalt is still angry, so Capulet makes a personal appeal, saying that Romeo has a good reputation throughout Verona, so that "I would not for the wealth of all the town / Here in my house do him disparagement" (1.5.70). What happens "Here in my house" is very important to Capulet, and he's asking Tybalt to see things from his point of view.

However, Tybalt doesn't seem to be responding, so Capulet turns up the heat. He tells Tybalt that even if he can't stand Romeo, he needs to wipe the frown off his face, out of respect for Capulet: "It is my will, the which if thou respect, / Show a fair presence and put off these frowns, / An ill-beseeming semblance for a feast" (1.5.74). This tactic doesn't work either, and Tybalt declares that he will not endure Romeo.

Tybalt's pigheadedness earns him a humiliating tongue-lashing from Capulet, starting with "He shall be endured: / What, goodman boy! I say, he shall: go to; / Am I the master here, or you? go to" (1.5.76-78). "Go to" is a phrase that was as common as "go on" is now, and, like "go on," it could mean everything from "I don't believe it" to "get out of my face." Capulet has given up on giving friendly advice and is now sputtering with anger. He calls Tybalt "boy" and mocks him and sneers "you'll be the man!" (1.5.81). Finally Tybalt realizes that his only choice is to shut up and leave, which he does, but without really changing his attitude. As he leaves, he promises Romeo will pay. He says, "I will withdraw, but this intrusion shall / Now seeming sweet convert to bitter gall" (1.5.91-92) [Scene Summary]

Friar Laurence addresses Romeo as "son," and Romeo calls him "father," which is appropriate because of the Friar's status as a priest; however, the two of them also seem to have a secular father-son relationship. When we first see them together, it's very early in the morning and the Friar says, "Young son, it argues a distemper'd [disturbed, confused] head / So soon to bid good morrow to thy bed" (2.3.34). The Friar also says that an old man, who naturally has many worries, finds it hard to sleep, "But where unbruised youth with unstuff'd brain [i.e.,not stupid, but carefree] / Doth couch his limbs, there golden sleep doth reign" (2.3.37-38). Therefore he concludes that Romeo has awakened early because something is bothering him. Then, before Romeo has a chance to reply, the Friar correctly guesses that "Our Romeo hath not been in bed to-night" (2.3.42). The use of the word "our" suggests that the Friar considers Romeo to be part of his family, and the fact that the Friar guesses the truth about Romeo suggests that he knows him quite well. These impressions are strengthened as the scene unfolds, for when the Friar learns of Romeo's love for Juliet, he immediately starts chiding the young man about Rosaline. As the Friar talks about how Romeo has wept and sighed for Rosaline, we see that Romeo has confided in him more than he has in his parents or his friend Benvolio. Also, the Friar's chiding is a half-joking way of expressing his concern that Romeo has simply traded one hopeless infatuation for another. As it turns out, the Friar doesn't agree to marry Romeo and Juliet until Romeo reassures him that this time it's different, because he and Juliet have a mutual love. [Scene Summary]

The Nurse, talking with Romeo about his arrangements for the wedding between himself and Juliet, expresses parental worry that Romeo might be trying to take advantage of Juliet's youthful innocence and says to him, "the gentlewoman is young; and, therefore, if you should deal double with her, truly it were an ill thing to be offered to any gentlewoman, and very weak dealing" (2.4.167-170). However, when she is sure that Romeo really does intend marriage, the Nurse is very happy, and almost goes off on a fond story about when Juliet was "a little prating thing" (2.4.200). [Scene Summary]

After Romeo kills Tybalt, he hides in Friar Laurence's cell. When the Friar returns, Romeo asks, "Father, what news? what is the prince's doom [judgment]? / What sorrow craves acquaintance at my hand, / That I yet know not? (3.3.4-6). The Friar, feeling sorry for Romeo, replies, "Too familiar / Is my dear son with such sour company [i.e., sorrows]: / I bring thee tidings of the prince's doom [judgment]" (3.3.6-88). The Friar believes he has very good news for Romeo -- his sentence is not death, but banishment. Romeo, however, thinks that banishment is worse than death, and when the Friar tries to talk some sense into him, Romeo throws himself on the floor and bawls. The Friar keeps on trying to talk sense into Romeo, saying the sort of things that parents often say -- that Romeo should grow up, that Romeo should realize how lucky he is, that Romeo should think about all he has to live for -- but none of this seems to reach Romeo. Finally, the Friar tells Romeo that he should go visit Juliet before he leaves for Mantua. That makes Romeo happy. He stops crying, stops threatening to kill himself, gets up, and goes to Juliet. [Scene Summary]

Late in the evening of the day of Juliet's marriage to Romeo, Capulet explains to Paris that he hasn't had a chance to speak to Juliet about marrying. Then Capulet adds, "Look you, she loved her kinsman Tybalt dearly" (3.4.3), which seems to suggest that he has some sensitivity about her feelings. But within a few moments he offers Paris Juliet's hand in marriage, saying, "Sir Paris, I will make a desperate tender / Of my child's love: I think she will be ruled / In all respects by me; nay, more, I doubt it not" (3.4.12-14). A "tender" is an offer; Capulet's offer of Juliet's love is "desperate" in the sense of "bold" because he has made the offer without knowing how Juliet feels about Paris. But the more common meaning of "desperate" is "reckless" or "thoughtless," and it certainly seems that Capulet didn't think before he spoke. However, once Capulet makes the offer he quickly becomes quite sure that he can follow through. He first thinks that Juliet will obey him, then he has no doubt that she will. [Scene Summary]

Immediately after Romeo and Juliet's one night of married happiness, Juliet is told that she is to marry Paris. Her mother first delivers the news, her father threatens to disown her if she does not do it, and her surrogate mother, the Nurse, advises her that it is the best thing to do. Like most parents, they all want what is best for Juliet, and -- like many parents -- they all think they know her so well that they know what is best for her better than she does.

Romeo's departure makes Juliet weep, but her mother assumes that she knows the cause of Juliet's tears. She says, "Evermore weeping for your cousin's death? / What, wilt thou wash him from his grave with tears?" (3.5.69-70). Juliet's mother proceeds to tell Juliet that the real cause for her tears is that revenge has not been taken on the villain Romeo. Then Lady Capulet tells her daughter that she has a surprise for her that will surely cheer her up. The surprise is the marriage to Paris. Lady Capulet expects happy gratitude, so Juliet's emphatic refusal angers her.

Like his wife, Capulet assumes that Tybalt's death is the cause of Juliet's tears, and he says so in a rather elaborate way: "When the sun sets, the air doth drizzle dew; / But for the sunset of my brother's son / It rains downright. / How now! a conduit, girl? what, still in tears?" (3.5.126-129). Capulet also assumes that Juliet will appreciate all that he has done for her in arranging the marriage to Paris. When he finds out differently, he is violently angry.

When Juliet turns to the Nurse for comfort, the Nurse assumes -- as her parents did -- that what Juliet really wants is a husband. She says, "Faith, here it is. / Romeo is banish'd; and all the world to nothing, / That he dares ne'er come back to challenge [claim] you" (3.5.212-214). Then the Nurse reasons that, since Romeo will never come back and Paris is available, Juliet should marry Paris. [Scene Summary]

Despite the fact that Juliet has not agreed to marry Paris, Capulet goes ahead with preparations for the wedding feast. He sends one servant out with invitations and another out to hire cooks. Then Juliet appears and says that Friar Laurence has taught her to obey her father, so she is ready to marry Paris. This pleases Capulet so much that he moves up the wedding date by 24 hours.

Capulet, who made terrible threats against Juliet when she opposed his will, is an affectionate parent when he gets his way. The ease with which Juliet manipulates him is almost comic. The moment before Juliet appears Capulet is grumbling about her, saying, "A peevish self-will'd harlotry it is" (4.2.14). A "harlotry" is a good-for-nothing wench, and "it" is a word used for an infant; Capulet thinks Juliet is a spoiled brat who wants to have everything her own way. But when Juliet shows up with her happy face pasted on, he asks her, "How now, my headstrong! where have you been gadding?" (4.2.16), which appears to be a teasing question, rather than an angry one. In answering her father's question, Juliet lies. She says she has been where she has learned to repent for being disobedient to her father. Then she kneels and says exactly what her father wants to hear: "Pardon, I beseech you! / Henceforward I am ever ruled by you" (4.2.20-21). Capulet is completely taken in, and at the end of the scene he exclaims, "My heart is wondrous light, / Since this same wayward girl is so reclaim'd" (4.2.47) [Scene Summary]

Juliet has been pretending to take an interest in the selection of the clothes for her wedding to Paris, but now she needs to be alone. She says, "Ay, those attires [clothes] are best, but, gentle nurse, / I pray thee, leave me to myself to-night" (4.3.1-2), and explains, "For I have need of many orisons [prayers]/ To move the heavens to smile upon my state, / Which, well thou know'st, is cross, and full of sin" (4.3.3-5). In using the word "cross" of herself, Juliet may be making a rueful joke to herself. Earlier, before she pretended to agree with his every word, Juliet's father considered her cross in every way -- cranky, willful, ungrateful, and sniveling. Now she has to pretend that she needs to pray forgiveness for all that.

Lady Capulet enters and says, "What, are you busy, ho? need you my help?" (4.3.6). The little word "ho" seems to mean "in there," as though Juliet's mother is only half-way in Juliet's door. The last time Lady Capulet talked to Juliet, she told her to shut up and declared, "Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee" (3.5.203) That was when Juliet was refusing to marry Paris; now Lady Capulet may feel a little shy about returning to her role as mother.

To her mother's question Juliet replies, "No, madam; we have cull'd [picked out] such necessaries / As are behoveful [needful] for our state to-morrow" (4.3.7-8). Then she respectfully requests some time by herself, and, to make sure that she is entirely alone, says to her mother, "And let the nurse this night sit up with you; / For, I am sure, you have your hands full all, / In this so sudden business"(4.3.10-12). Juliet's mother doesn't need any more persuading; she says "Good night. / Get thee to bed, and rest; for thou hast need" (4.3.12-13), then leaves with the Nurse. As the two women leave, Juliet says -- though not so they can hear -- "Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again" (4.3.14). This is heartbreaking. Because of the abundant foreshadowing in the play, we sense that Juliet will never again see her mother or the Nurse who has been like a mother to her [Scene Summary]

After Juliet takes Friar Laurence's sleeping potion, Juliet's parents think she is dead. Though Capulet had threatened to put her out on the street to starve and Lady Capulet had declared she was done with her, now that Juliet is (apparently) dead, they both say that all their happiness depended on Juliet. Lady Capulet says, "But one, poor one, one poor and loving child, / But one thing to rejoice and solace in, / And cruel death hath catch'd it from my sight!" (4.5.46-48). Capulet says, "Alack! my child is dead; / And with my child my joys are buried" (4.5.63-64). The contrast between the two attitudes is very strong, but they're not hypocrites, just parents. [Scene Summary]