Shakespeare and Romance: Romeo & Juliet

romeo and juliet

One of the reasons why I often like to facilitate discussion about my type of romance is because I feel that it isn’t represented much in the media. We draw some ideas of our cultural norms from the media, so others like me might be led to feel that they’re not normal.

Interestingly, one of the most famous examples of my type of romance, or at least extolling against silly romance, is often misinterpreted: “Romeo & Juliet.” People will call an ideal male lover a “Romeo,” when in fact that was the opposite of what Shakespeare intended.

Shakespeare liked to do multiple things with his plays, but one of the facets of “Romeo & Juliet” is him speaking out against a form of romance he didn’t like. It’s called “Petrarchan,” for the man who made the sonnet famous in Italy. His poems popularized florid romantic language: a woman’s eyes are like sapphires, her hair is yellow like gold, her skin as white as snow, etc.

Most of us probably read Shakespeare’s answer to that in high school or college: Sonnet 130, or “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like The Sun.” In that Shakespeare says his love’s eyes do not sparkle like gems, her breath does not smell of flowers, her cheeks are not the color of roses, etc.

We all like to be flattered, and so it’s obvious how the Petrarchan ideal of romance can appeal to many. But others, Shakespeare included, find it much more swoon-worthy when one acknowledges the truth of the situation but loves anyway: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/As any she belied with false compare.”

In “Romeo & Juliet,” then, Shakespeare again takes up arms against this over-idealized form of romance. If you’ve any doubts that he does, well, he name-checks Petrarch when Mercutio makes fun of Romeo for being ridiculous over love: “Now is he for the numbers Petrarch flowed in” (Act 2 Scene IV).

Mercutio is talking about Romeo’s love for Rosaline, the girl Romeo’s seriously crushing on at the beginning of the play. At this point Romeo has met and fallen for Juliet, but his friends don’t know yet.

But that’s exactly the point: when the play opens, Romeo’s ridiculously in love with Rosaline. He spends all of his time laying around and moaning of his love for her. In fact, the only reason he’s at the party at which he meets Juliet is because Rosaline’s there too, and he wants to see her. But the second he lays eyes on Juliet, he forgets all about Ros-what’s-her-name.

All right, the whole love-at-first-sight thing might seem romantic. But Romeo’s manner doesn’t change at all once he finds Juliet. He uses the same florid, even ridiculous language to describe her like he did Rosaline. He lazes around moaning about his love for her, even once he ought to do more and act (like after the fight between their families turns bloody).

You can’t really blame him for being devastated when he thinks Juliet’s dead, though because he acts exactly the same about Juliet as he did with his inconstant love for Rosaline, you might wonder. But if he’d been a bit less dramatic he might have lived the few moments he’d needed to in order to discover Juliet alive. One of the many tragedies of the play is that it’s about two kids in way over their heads (don’t forget Juliet’s only 13 or 14, and Romeo’s 18 at most), not really understanding love and perhaps going about it poorly.

Shakespeare has other famous examples of what he feels is a more realistic, or at least compelling, form of romance. The English major in me loves them, both for the literary fun and for the back-up of my ideals. I’ll get to them again someday, but I’ll spare you more Shakespeare for a while.

Related Articles:

A Different View on Marriage

Can You Die of a Broken Heart?

One-Sided Romance

The Arts and Marriage

How Long?

*(This photo by Yuma is from the Wikimedia Commons and is thus in the public domain for free use).

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Angela Shambeda

About Angela Shambeda

Angela lives in southern Maryland with her husband and three rescue pets. She often talks her poor husband's ear off about various topics, including Disney, so she's excited to share her thoughts and passions with you.