This page discusses the Romeo and Juliet themes that are evident in the play.
Whilst the play features the meeting and falling in love of the two main protagonists, to say that love is a theme of Romeo and Juliet is an oversimplification. Rather, Shakespeare structures Romeo and Juliet around several contrasting ideas, with a number of themes expressed as opposites. To say that the tension between love and hate is a major theme in Romeo and Juliet gets us closer to what the play is about. These – and other – opposing ideas reverberate with each other and are intertwined through the text.
7 Key Themes In Romeo and Juliet:
Historical Time vs The Present
The first thing that strikes one is the feud, mentioned in the Prologue as ‘ancient grudge.’ Here we have a story about happy carefree young people, living in the modern world and enjoying it. The action moves very fast. All that is set against something that happened in the far distant past – an ancient grudge – and, on that level, time is moving very slowly. There is constant mention of time in the text. The nurse recalls Juliet’s early childhood, contrasting it with her young adulthood, using a crude reference to her current sexual maturity. Romeo imagines his life as a long sea voyage that ends in a shipwreck, in contrast to the pace of the life he is living in the present. So the fast-moving, optimistic life of the moment against the power of a toxic history and how it affects the present is a major theme.
Light and Dark
The interplay of images of light and darkness, often placed together, bring the text to life with illumination and shadows. Flashing and sparkling eyes, jewels fire, lightning, stars, exploding gunpowder, torches, the sun and the moon, are set against images of night, smoke, clouds, and a pitch-black tomb. The images, many of them of celestial bodies, connect with the prologue’s assertion that these are star-crossed lovers. The struggle of bright young hopes against the inevitability of the dark tomb is an important theme. In the midst of the brightness of youth, we are constantly reminded, in the way that Shakespeare juxtaposes those images with images of darkness, of the closeness death.
Fate and Free Will
The Prologue refers to the protagonists as ‘star-crossed lovers.’ The belief that Fate determines human life reverberates through the play. Fate versus free will is the theme here. Romeo and Juliet struggle to break free of the threats that Fate represents, expressed in their dreams and premonitions, and the imagery, throughout the text. Romeo is frustrated by the intervention of Fate at every move he makes to assert his will. ‘O I am fortune’s fool,’ he cries when he realises that he has killed Tybalt. When he hears of the death of Juliet, he shouts up to the heavens, ‘Then I defy you, stars!’
Love and Hate
The intensity of the love between Romeo and Juliet is pitched against the hate-ridden society in which they live. In the balcony scene, Juliet tells Romeo that if her kinsmen find him in the orchard they will murder him. It is that hatred that is going to destroy them. Not only them but Mercutio, Tybalt and Paris as well. The hatred generated by the ancient feud is just as intense, as we see from the emotional behaviour of Tybalt, as the intensity of the love between Romeo and Juliet.
Death and Hate
Death is ever-present in Verona. The old folk mutter about it all the time: ‘we were born to die,’ ‘death’s the end of all,’ and young lives are abruptly cut short – so abruptly that the speed of it is a shock in itself. The word ‘death’ pervades the text. Death is even personified: we see him shutting up the doors of life, eating the living, fighting on the battlefield. Most horrifying is that he is Juliet’s bridegroom. ‘Death is my son-in-law/Death is my heir/My daughter he hath wedded,’ wails Capulet as he weeps over Juliet’s body. Against all that are the hopes of the lovers for a life together doomed by the stars.
Youth Against Age
The youthful impetuous emotion of the lovers bumps up against the cautious, mature wisdom of the older people. Friar Lawrence cautions Romeo ‘love moderately, long love doth so.’ Tybalt’s rage at finding Romeo at the Capulet party and wanting to fight him there and then is put down by the older Capulet. This contrast is far more complex, however, when one thinks about the folly of Friar Lawrence in his support for the young lovers’ marriage, and also Capulet’s mood swings and outbursts of violence in his efforts to deal with his daughter. Such things throw doubt on the wisdom they proclaim, against the go-for-it approach of the younger generation. This is a major exploration of the relationships between the generations and feeds strongly into the time theme.
Language vs Reality
This is one of Shakespeare’s main thematic interests in all of his plays. He was intensely interested in the uneasy relationships between the words we use to describe things and what those things actually are in reality. In Romeo and Juliet Romeo is described as ‘Montague.’ The word creates prejudice and hatred, the impetus for revenge and violence. Tybald is blinded by malice at the very sound of Romeo’s voice. The word ‘Montague’ has nothing to do with what Romeo is in actuality: if he had been described as ‘Capulet’ the tragedy would not have happened. The text is full of sentiments that express this theme. ‘What’s in a name?’ Juliet says. ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ That completely encapsulates this theme. This play emphasises the tension between words and action, language and life, that we find in all Shakespeare’s plays.
What do you think of these Romeo and Juliet themes – any that you don’t agree with, or would add? Let us know in the comments section below!