Looking for help finding the themes in Romeo and Juliet? This easy to understand article will set you on your way. Whether you are studying the play at school, and need some starters for your homework, or have just seen the play and want to dive deeper, we’ll discover that ‘love’ is not the only theme going on here.
This article contains spoilers!
This page is a companion to our book “Romeo and Juliet: The Full Doodling Edition”. We also have related articles on the characters in Romeo and Juliet , as well as a handy scene-by-scene summary . All of this can be downloaded in our printable Romeo and Juliet Pocket Study’zine Pack which also includes fun doodling sheets.
This guide is a companion to our book
Looking for themes and symbols in Romeo and Juliet
Themes are recurring preoccupations that appear within a play. Sometimes these take the form of language, sometimes as imagery. Many of Shakespeare’s plays contain similar overarching themes such as conflict and change; but each play also contains its own ‘fingerprint’ of deeper themes too. Here we explore some of the particular themes you can find in Romeo and Juliet.
Love and Hate
Romeo and Juliet is possibly Shakespeare’s most famous play, and everyone quickly recognises that love is the central theme. Equally as important though is the idea of opposing forces, and so hate plays a crucial role too.
Love is represented in many ways, firstly as the stylized ‘Petrarchan Love’ that lovesick Romeo feels for the unattainable Rosaline. Petrarch was an Italian poet whose soppy sonnets were popular in Tudor England. Like Romeo he also revelled in the melancholy of unrequited love; something that the play certainly has fun with – particularly via Romeo’s friends, Benvolio and Mercutio.
Paris steps forward to win Juliet with all the trappings of courtly love. Just as would be expected from a man of his status seeking the daughter of an important family. Love is present in terms of sexuality too; often through coarse and bawdy innuendo like that enjoyed by the Nurse and Mercutio.
In sharp contrast to all this though is the ‘true love’ experienced between Romeo and Juliet. We can easily recognise it as such. It matures as the plot progresses seemingly threatened only by the hate of others.
The play is laced with hate. Beginning, as we learn in the prologue, with the ‘ancient grudge’ of two feuding families; quickly made real through the vicious street fights and duels that end in such tragedy.
Fate and Free Will
More opposing ideas here too. At the very opening of the play the prologue warns us of this, kicking off with the idea of “A pair of star-crossed lovers” for whom fate has already decided the outcomes. It is in the hands of the stars. Tension is created as Romeo and Juliet experience premonitions of ill-fortune, yet neither lose their ability to act in free-will, opposing what others think to be their paths. Romeo even challenges fate directly when he learns of Juliet’s death, “Then I defy you, stars!”
Youth and Age
Many times you’ll see that the perceived differences between young an old fuel the events of the play. Contrast is made between the vigorous and sometimes impetuous emotions of youth against the more cautious wisdom which appears to come from maturity.
We find this in the relationship between Romeo and Friar Lawrence. “I stand on sudden haste” urges Romeo, “Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast” replies the Friar. Juliet is most clearly a character at odds with the older generation, namely her parents. The classic case of youth versus age. And yet this contrast is complex and should not be thought of as a cliché. At times Juliet’s maturity stands out against her father’s rash hot-headed fury. Indeed, when we think of the plans cooked up by the ‘wise’ friar, and the risks that he brings to the young couple, we might question how much wisdom age has really brought. Yet we feel impressed by his acquired knowledge of herbs, and reassured by his ability to remain calm in adversity.
All of these themes ultimately tie up with the notion of death versus life. The play is full of references to death, both serious and playful. Life seems to be pretty cheap in Verona, and that death is never far away is reflected in richness of the language used to describe it: “death-mark’d love”, “canker death”, “love-devouring death”, “death-darting eye”, “death becomes thy friend”, “womb of death”, “death’s pale flag” and so on. It is the young that die here, their lives cut short early, whilst the older characters muse on the idea of death. “We were born to die” as Capulet puts it. Ultimately death is personified, rising up as a character present in the minds of the players. This is the most startling when Lord Capulet imagines Death, thinking that he has become Juliet’s bridegroom: “Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir; My daughter he hath wedded”.
Light and Dark
One of the most arresting and recurring symbols used throughout the play is that of light and dark. Romeo and Juliet meet at night, and much of the time we spend with them together is in the hours of darkness. But time and again Romeo sees nothing but light from Juliet, “Juliet is the sun” he says. So much of their shared language concerns light and dark. When we see Juliet anxiously awaiting the arrival of her love she talks of wanting the dark night to come sooner; “Come, night, come Romeo; come thou day in night”.
We can track this motif from the very start to finish. From the lovesick Romeo pining for Rosaline who “makes himself an artificial night”, to the physical darkness of the Capulet tomb where even in apparent death “Her beauty makes this vault a feasting presence full of light”.
Oppositions and Oxymorons
Along with the oppositions we’ve identified in theme and motif, oppositions also turn up spoken in the form of oxymorons. These literary devices are used within the play’s language to heighten the complexity and intensity of the emotions expressed.
For example, confronting his own unrequited love for Rosaline Romeo says “Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love. Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!”. With this contradictory outburst ‘loving hate’, Romeo expresses his inner turmoil very neatly. And later, famously, Juliet expresses that “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” Her words cleverly intensify the complex emotion she is obviously feeling, thus helping us to experience them too.
The illustrations in this article are from a reader’s own customized version of our book Romeo and Juliet: The Full Doodling Edition which is available at Amazon and from all good bookstores now. Learn more…