Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Themes

Romeo and Juliet contains a pair of central themes that intertwine to support one another: the theme of all-consuming love, and the theme that things are not always what they appear to be.

All-Consuming Love

Love is the central theme of Romeo and Juliet and the play’s most notorious theme. The play focuses on the intense romantic love between the title characters and on the concept of romantic love more generally. In Romeo and Juliet, love is not the artificial, sterilized version found in bad love poetry or romance novels. Rather, it is an all-consuming force that overwhelms individuals and forces them at times into conflicts with family, social conventions, and their own psyches.

This overwhelming, all-consuming nature of love is summed up multiple times in the play, as the characters consistently turn to new and different metaphors to describe it. At Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting, love is described in religious terms. Later, it is described in terms of magic, as when the Chorus describes the title characters as “alike bewitched by the charm of looks.” Later in the play, Juliet describes her love in terms of a wealth so vast she cannot begin to measure its worth. Love resists description by any one metaphor because it is so vast and complex that no one explanation can hold it.

Things Are Not Always What They Appear to Be

Even as the love between the title characters is portrayed as an overwhelming and at times supernatural force, the play’s other main theme works to undermine this idea of love and a great many other conventional ideas about people and society. The play’s grandest statements on love, typically expressed in rhyming poetic forms, alternate with bawdy jokes about sex and lust, typically expressed in prose. The contrast serves to show that even love itself may not be entirely pure, but driven by more primal and selfish motives.

The key to the dramatic tension in Romeo and Juliet is the concept of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something the characters do not. The play creates dramatic irony from its Prologue, in which the Chorus gives away the ending long before it actually takes place. The enjoyment of watching the play thus comes not from knowing what happens, but how.

Dramatic irony builds throughout the play through the use of situations in which events, plans, or objects are not what any one character believes them to be. Mercutio’s mockery of Romeo’s romanticism takes an ironic turn when the audience, but not Mercutio, realizes that Romeo’s artificial love for Rosaline has been replaced by his far more genuine passion for Juliet. Lord Capulet and Paris’s plans to marry Juliet to Paris create tension when the audience knows Juliet is secretly married to Romeo. Juliet’s conversation with Paris the day before their planned wedding is full of double meaning: everything she says to Paris sounds merely polite, when it can also be understood to mean that she is already married and is thus rejecting Paris’s advances. The play’s final acts terrify the audience because they, unlike the characters, know that Juliet is not dead and that rash action is not called for – yet they are powerless to stop Romeo rushing to his doom.

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