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Comparing Love and Motivations: Romeo & Juliet Vs Catherine & Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights

Updated on July 16, 2015

Star-crossed lovers do more than just die; they manage to schlep entire works of literature and plays along with them. Both the title characters in Romeo and Juliet and Catherine and Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights face obstacles throughout their escapades that make loving each other and just being together more than difficult. Thus, a discussion of various events within William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights makes for an apt comparison.

So, in an attempt to expand on various plot points without too much unnecessary summary, no other events surrounding these details needs supplementary discussion. Also, since the theme of this analysis is reliant on specific points within the play and novel, allowance will be given in brief summation for the purpose of this theory.

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Several moments embedded within the plots resonate from both texts, marking them as significant in such a comparison. These moments include: how the fateful lovers met, the overall differences in age between Romeo and Juliet and Catherine and Heathcliff that mark stereotypes of romantic love, the literal and figurative banishment of both Romeo and Heathcliff, Juliet’s simulated suicide and Catherine’s attempt to will herself dead or insane, and the deadly result for all involved due to the extreme motivational force of their destructive love.

A critic might argue that one cannot possibly compare the love of Catherine and Heathcliff to that of Romeo and Juliet because the story of Romeo and Juliet is told in a play format, as a dramatic tragedy, and Wuthering Heights is told in a significantly different novel format. So, how could the audience know what the characters are feeling or have any idea for the actual motivation behind their desires? The argument against this is much more profound, however, because the story of Catherine and Heathcliff is told only from outside their point of view, from Nelly’s narrative with the curious Lockwood, and that the audience, here, is also severely limited in the motivations of Catherine and Heathcliff.

But the limitations within the tales are essentially what establish such a close linking between the stories. Though Romeo and Juliet address the audience with enough asides that only the deliberately ignorant would miss their feelings, Catherine and Heathcliff’s desires are likewise projected by the vigilant nosy body, Nelly, who clearly doesn’t miss a whisper despite her penchant for denying pleasure from gossip.

Something to note about the evaluation of Shakespeare’s characters is that “the play embraces many different kinds of lovemaking, and Romeo and Juliet’s feelings are expressed through a greater range of modes than any single critic will admit” (Colaco 85). Thus, the audience in both stories can glimpse enough from the lovers, and those around the lovers, to understand their underlying motivations and feelings without question.

Moreover, “the constant opposing of desire and disappointment in the great love-stories has inevitably suggested some relation between them” (Erskine 42). Meaning that love stories, especially stories where such intense love and passions serve to propel the work, can all be related based on the fact that they are, at the root, love stories, tragic or not, though in this case both happen to end in tragedy for the characters.

Now, vicious plot summary will be avoided here, as it can be assumed that both Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet are stories well enough known. However, there are several poignant plot points that must be summoned at this moment to present this theory with any alacrity.

First, a reader must understand how the characters met. Beginning with Romeo and Juliet, a reader would find it significant to learn that Romeo Montague was originally infatuated with Rosaline (who does not physically appear in the play), who his friend, Benvolio, suggests, could be found at the Capulet’s magnificent costume ball. Though Romeo was foolish to attend, being of a feuding family, he donned a mask and went anyway to perhaps meet with her, or as Benvolio recommended, compare her with the choice high-society ladies that would be in attendance.

So, Romeo attends and immediately discovers Juliet Capulet, astounded by her beauty, and mutters to himself, “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! / It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night / as a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear / beauty too rich for use, for earth to dear!” (Scene V, line 42-45). Romeo is, clearly, infatuated with the lovely Juliet from the moment he sees her.

Then he decides that he’ll “watch her place of stand, / and, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand. / Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight; / for I never saw true beauty till this night” (Scene V, line 48-51). Romeo is just standing there, watching Juliet walk around the ball as he muses about her beauty, but it is clear to the reader that he has fallen in love, has found his “true beauty” and will probably, as one can guess, this being a love story, meet with her and get her to be his without further ado.

Unfortunately, Tybalt Capulet, Juliet’s cousin, overhears Romeo’s loud aside and decides to kill Romeo on the spot. Luckily for the plot, the great Lord Capulet steps in, claiming that such violence and bloodshed would ruin the party, and Tybalt finally agrees to murder Romeo later. Unmistakably, this party scene does more than just set up the romance between Romeo and Juliet, it also sets up the reader for events to come involving Tybalt’s threat against Romeo’s life.

Now, “with true lovers there seems to be no wooing, for they are mated ere they were born” (Erskine 42), and Romeo does in fact meet with Juliet, they exchange several loving phrases, kiss, talk sweet love again, kiss, and then Juliet is called away by her nurse to see her mother; at which point Romeo questions the nurse and discovers that he has just fallen in love with Juliet Capulet.

Romeo’s reaction occurs in the next scene while he is clamoring around on a brick wall, he decides that he is in love and proclaims, “can I go forward when my heart is here? / Turn back, dull earth, and find thy center out” (Act 2, Scene I, line 1-2). Romeo, at this point in the tale, is deciding whether to go through with their fledgling relationship even though she is a mortal enemy, or if he could really just let their instant love go by forgetting the events at the party ever happened. His friends, Mercutio and Benvolio, of course, find him insane after hearing his aside, and watch him leap off the wall, which is also significant to understanding the plot, as they see the love just as it is budding and cannot decide whether to let it be or stop it before someone gets killed.

Of course, Juliet also questions her nurse and discovers that she has just been making out with Romeo Montague and proclaims, “my only love sprung from my only hate! / too early seem unknown, and known too late! / prodigious birth of love is to me, / that I must love a loathed enemy” (Act 2, Scene I, line 136-139). Juliet is just as concerned as Romeo, as would be expected.

Next, Romeo finds his way to the window below Juliet’s room and overhears perhaps the most famous speech in history, “O Romeo, O Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo? / Deny thy father and refuse thy name; / or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, / and I’ll no longer be a Capulet” (Act 2, Scene II, line 33-36). Asides in Shakespeare’s plays never seem to actually be only between the audience and the character and of course Romeo overhears every word, makes his presences known, and the young lovers decide to marry.

By the end of their passionate meeting, Juliet confirms that she will send a messenger by morning to arrange their immediate marriage. In fact, “she is impatient for complete self-surrender, eager that the deed should become perfect and irreversible” (Dowden 53). Juliet and Romeo, here, are perhaps a bit extreme in their love, but it is clear that their first meeting drew some serious sparks between the pair.

Comparatively, the first meeting between Catherine and Heathcliff is a bit less melodramatic and does not require near as much summary narration to demonstrate the immediacy of the character’s connection; however, it is notable at this point that Romeo and Juliet were teens when they met, and that their connection was instant and intense, while Catherine and Heathcliff were but children and had yet no lustful capacity for such romantic love.

Incidentally, Catherine and Heathcliff’s story begins when Catherine’s father, Mr. Earnshaw goes to Liverpool and three days later, comes back with a little orphan, later named Heathcliff, and when he is brought inside, Mrs. Earnshaw “asks how he could fashion to bring that gipsy brat into the house…[and] was ready to fling it out of doors” (Bronte 29). This is significant to understand because Heathcliff was considered by Catherine’s high-society family to be a mere mutt, brought into the family only because he was a homeless wretch, in which case the relationship is nearly as intolerable as that of Romeo and Juliet’s with their warring families.

Now, just children at the time, it took a while for things to get settled and for Catherine and Heathcliff’s bond to form, but it was soon discovered, as Nelly later divulges the tale to Lockwood, that “she was much too fond of Heathcliff. The greatest punishment we could invent for her was to keep her separate from him: yet she got chided more than any of us on his account” (Bronte 33). Though they were just children, Catherine and Heathcliff instantly got along well, well enough that Catherine seemed almost possessive of him, and he of her.

At the point of Catherine’s greatest battiness, Nelly realizes that Catherine, in “doing just what her father hated most, which he thought real, had more power over Heathcliff than his kindness; how the boy would do her bidding in anything, and his only when it suited his own inclination” (Bronte 34). It is uncovered for the reader, here, that Catherine and Heathcliff are inseparable, and that they have more influence over the other than any other member of the Earnshaw family, no matter how kind, or cruel.

Indeed, their relationship, “forged in their embittered and savage childhood…is curiously chaste, for all its emotional outpourings…then again, it is rude, lurid, unwholesome, intensely erotic, and suggestive of an incestuous bond” (Oates para. 8). As Joyce Carol Oates implies, the love between Heathcliff and Catherine is more than just the regular love found between two childhood friends, or even passionate lovers. Their love is even more powerful than the love shared between a sister and brother. In a sense, they are almost one, “incestuous” because they are, with all practical sense, of the same soul.

Now, a reader must keep in mind that Romeo and Juliet were much younger than Catherine and Heathcliff, who by all accounts, made their love / intense need for each other known, to the detriment of Catherine’s marriage with Linton. At all costs, Catherine declared, outright and with passionate claims for her own health that she must be with Heathcliff.

The youth of Romeo and Juliet is “set off by the age of their parents, age that has forgotten what love and youth are” (Erskine 45). Now, perhaps Romeo and Juliet’s families were mortal enemies and they would never have liked, nor gave credence to, the union between the young lovers. However, as a mutual peace treaty is proclaimed by the end of the play as a result of their deaths, one can assume that the lovers were more impetuous than necessary and that perhaps their families would have eventually agreed to their union.

Romeo and Juliet were so much in love, and they needed to be together so profoundly, that they both willingly died for the other. It can stand to chance, that both families would have let the two be together, rather than lose them both forever in death. This would be the main difference between the sets of lovers; while Catherine and Heathcliff were never together in marriage or sexually, they were together until death, though Catherine’s death was clearly inspired by the stress induced by needing Heathcliff on such a profound level. But they did not let their love linger in silence; for fear that others would disapprove. If Romeo and Juliet had let their families know, instead of faking their deaths, then actually dying, maybe they could have lived in love together for many years. That, perhaps, is the difference that age makes with love. Young lovers cannot see the big picture, while people a little older and in love no longer need the approval of others.

Moreover, Catherine and Heathcliff were together, as friends (soul mates, whatever) for many years, and Romeo and Juliet’s life together lasted less than a month, and “the extreme youth of Juliet [and Romeo], for example, seems to have more to do with romance than with contemporary reality” (Gillespie 948). The romance between Romeo and Juliet is “a poetry of exhilarated surges, magically swift, light and intense” (Gillespie 948), meaning that their romance was more innocent and intense than that experienced by Catherine and Heathcliff.

Now, near the beginning of the novel, Catherine is struggling with her decision to marry Linton. She feels that she should marry him because he will place her sufficiently in society, as Heathcliff never could, much as Juliet is honor-bound by her father to immediately marry Paris. In a conversation with Nelly, Catherine says, “it would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now” (Bronte 63). Unfortunately, Heathcliff overhears this aspect of the conversation and leaves Wuthering Heights, feeling that he isn’t worthy of love by Catherine.

In that same conversation, though, Catherine explains that Heathcliff “shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same” (Bronte 63). In this scene, a reader will realize that Catherine and Heathcliff are, in essence, the same identity, a fact that leads to their ultimate destruction. After Catherine finds out that Heathcliff heard what she had said, she goes out searching for him in the pouring rain, from which she “burst out in uncontrollable grief…[and it] proved the commencement of her delirium” (69). She is so crazy and delusional at this point that the doctor thinks that she may kill herself. Having believed that she has forever lost Heathcliff, Catherine allows / forces herself to go insane, letting the madness begin within her soul that will only deepen until it destroys her in the end.

Banishment is also a theme running thickly within Romeo and Juliet’s romance. Romeo is involved in a street fight (this after his clandestine marriage to Juliet), where Tybalt, having promised to murder Romeo appears (here’s where that foreshadow rears its head), out for blood. He finds Mercutio, they fight and Mercutio is slain. Then Romeo steps in, pissed and full of rage that his friend has just been murdered, and no longer caring to be lenient on his new cousin, fights with and kills Tybalt. Things get ugly, the authorities come, and Romeo is banished for his heinous crime.

When Juliet discovers Romeo’s punishment, she panics, and is devastated to learn of her cousin’s death, but proclaims “I’ll to my wedding be; / and death, not Romeo, take my maiden head!” (Act 3, Scene II, line 135-137). Juliet is older at this point than Catherine was when she unintentionally banished Heathcliff; however, Juliet is just as melodramatic and desperate. Her words her are significant in understanding why she would later consume the apothecary’s drugs and fake her own death, just to be with Romeo. She is deeply in love and actually cares more for his welfare than that of herself or own cousin, Tybalt.

Moreover, banishment is a curious theme for both Heathcliff and Romeo as both men instantly stop being young and impetuous and decide to be men and make their own decisions. First, Heathcliff is crushed upon learning that he isn’t good enough to be loved by Catherine, so he leaves town for three years, and readers later discover that he has fled to Gimmerton where he mysteriously made a fortune.

Then, there’s Romeo’s transformation as he rises from being a young teen to being a man, and in fact, “the moment that [he] receives the false tidings of Juliet’s death, is the moment of his assuming full manhood” (Dowden 57). He is distraught, yes, but he is coherent in his thoughts that he must get to the apothecary and get himself a poison. His actions seem reckless, however, “for the first time, he is completely delivered from the life of dream, completely adult, and [is] able to act with an initiative in his own will, and with manly determination” (57), even though his determination is that he is prepared to die because Juliet has just “died.”

Unfortunately, both the transformation of Romeo and that of Heathcliff only serve to incite the terrible end of Juliet and Catherine and it is that “emotional stress of various degrees [that] afflicts [the] characters, [and] the sickness of spirit most discussed is lovesickness” (Bergeron 96). Perhaps the only reason that Romeo and Heathcliff grow up instantly is because they were lovesick enough to grow up mentally. Lovesickness is such a powerful force that it is indeed, very nearly the theme of both novels.

Moreover, “hero and heroine are doomed to love at the cost of whatever sacrifice, yet in circumstances which forbid their loving” (Erskine 42). Meaning that no matter the transformation, neither lovers could ever be together because they were destined for destruction from the beginning, and that no matter how passionate the beginning, their end would only find sacrifice.

Catherine is so upset by her husband’s (Edgar Linton) reaction to give up Heathcliff, that she determines to become insane to hurt them both. She tells Nelly, “I shall get wild. And Nelly, say to Edgar…that I’m in danger of being seriously ill. I wish it may prove true…I want to frighten him” (Bronte 91). Then she decides that, “well if I cannot keep Heathcliff for my friend, if Edgar will be mean and jealous, I’ll try to break their hearts by breaking my own” (92). She has determined, at this point, that she can make herself sick and fall into a deep depression that will serve her well to devastate both men. So, Edgar gives her an ultimatum, and she does indeed go quite insane. At this point, Catherine had become “no better than a wailing child” (97). Catherine is so lost without Heathcliff in her life, that she literally goes mad, losing her own identity, as if in losing Heathcliff she lost herself.

When Heathcliff finally manages a visit to Catherine on her deathbed, they embrace with such violence that Nelly comments, “I thought my mistress would never be released alive” (Bronte 125). Then, when Nelly approaches the couple, Heathcliff “gnashed at [her], and foamed like a mad dog, and gathered [Catherine] to him with greedy jealousy” (125). Nelly reflects that, “I did not feel as if I were in the company of a creature of my own species” (125). Heathcliff is, at this point, not longer human as he embraces the other half of his soul. His love for her is so fierce, so animalistic, that he no longer even cares about himself, only the dying Catherine.

However, Catherine and Heathcliff never did seek love, not even really from each other. They are, in essence, already one soul. Together, they are forever seeking a more spiritual existence, a more “natural,” higher level of existence, one that cannot be found within the confines of either Wuthering Heights or Thrushcross Grange. Catherine makes this clear when she compares her love for Linton to the seasons and her love for Heathcliff to the rocks, the rocks being everlasting.

In essence, both Heathcliff and Catherine were predestined for catastrophe because of the “other” that each is forever searching for: Heathcliff is Catherine, and Catherine is Heathcliff, and neither can truly live without the other. Moreover, their struggle for transcendence, to be together, and to feel human fuels the madness within, causing the ultimate destruction of both souls.

Near the beginning of the narrative (though it is actually near the end of the Heathcliff-Catherine story itself), Heathcliff hears frightful screaming coming from Mr. Lockwood’s room and believes that his lost love, Catherine, has finally returned, to haunt him. As a challenge before her death, he had called out to her, screaming, “Catherine…may you not rest as long as I am living! You said I killed you—haunt me, then!…Be with me always…drive me mad!…I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” (Bronte 130). Heathcliff is so distraught in losing her that he has already lost himself too.

Heathcliff believes that Catherine has taken up his challenge and has been haunting him for years. For Heathcliff, “everything in the world is a sign indicating Catherine, but also indicating, by its existence, his failure to possess her and the fact that she is dead” (Miller 373). Now that he is near death, he can finally be with her spirit. He can finally achieve that transcendence that they both needed. He can finally be with the other half of his soul and finally find an inner peace, to defeat the inner madness that has plagued him for so long.

In fact, the “peculiarity in the lovers feelings for each other…[identified] with the moors, and with Nature itself, that seems to preclude any human, let alone sexual bond” (Oates para 9) becomes the most important aspect of the love itself and identifies a weakness between the soul mates. Their love for each other is, in a sense, unbreakable and as everlasting as the nature around them. They are caught, though, in a precarious position, because without one, the other will not, or more literally, cannot, survive.

In fact, their love is an attempt to “break the boundaries of self and to fuse with another to transcend the inherent separateness of the human condition…and achieve new sense of identity, a complete and unified identity” (Oates para 9). The dying Catherine looks forward to achieving this state of transcendence with Heathcliff through her death. And when she dies, Heathcliff cannot achieve transcendence without her, because he himself has also died. They had to achieve transcendence in death, together.

Now, perhaps as a result of their doomed existence, Juliet drinks poison to trick her awaiting fiancé, Paris, (and the world) into thinking that she is dead, knowing that the only way to be with Romeo is to die, just like Catherine knew that the only way to keep Heathcliff in her life is to make Linton feel guilty for causing her insanity.

Unfortunately, as things go in tragedies, messages get mixed up and Romeo never gets Juliet’s letter depicting the plan. He does, however, get the letter explaining her death. As a result, Romeo gets a poison to kill himself, prepared to drink it near her body so that he can rest with her through all of eternity.

Things go horribly wrong, Romeo finds Paris laying roses upon Juliet’s grave, and the men fight to the death. Romeo wins the battle and lays Paris’ body in the grave meant for Juliet, then with another of the most famous speeches, proclaims, “arms, take your last embrace. And lips, O you / the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss / …Here’s to my love! [He Drinks] O true apothecary! / Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die” (Act 5, Scene II, line 113-120). And he dies upon his beloved.

Timing is always wrong in tragedies because it is at the moment of his death that Juliet’s poison wears off, and she awakens to the whole ghastly scene. Upon finding her beloved Romeo dead, she tries to kiss some of the poison from his lips, and gets mad when she finds that he hasn’t left her any. Then with another fabulously famous speech, she snatches Romeo’s dagger and proclaims, “O happy dagger! / This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die” (Act 5, Scene III, line 169-170), and thus she dies.

Furthermore, a critic notes that “out of much experience of what is typical in passion, the race has chosen to remember chiefly that where the union of hearts seems most imperative, the barriers to it seem insurmountable” (Erskine 42). Juliet doesn’t even consider life without Romeo, she just sees his dead body, tries briefly to find out what happened between him and Paris, then decides that she’d rather be with Romeo in the hereafter, and kills herself.

Juliet’s instant grief and consequent suicide is vastly similar to the depression and death that Catherine wills herself into upon learning her husband’s disquiet of her being friends with Heathcliff. Moreover, Heathcliff’s challenge to Catherine, to haunt him until his death, is reminiscent of Romeo’s willingness to commit suicide for Juliet, and her willingness to commit suicide for him, because neither can live without the other.

Neither Romeo and Juliet nor Catherine and Heathcliff can literally exist without the other. When Catherine dies, Heathcliff also spiritually dies, and when he does literally die, he is at his happiest because he will once again be with his beloved. Just as when Juliet fakes her death, Romeo spiritually dies and determines to die with her. It is this impulsiveness that condemns the characters from the beginning and it is “the flaw of impulsiveness or rashness [that] does explain the tragedy” (Cardullo 62). Their search to be together, and the destructive love that fuels both works only resulted in the predictable tragic endings for all characters. In fact, having never achieved true togetherness; the four lovers inevitably become lost souls because of the destructive love that none can deny.

Again, a critic could argue that one cannot possibly compare the love of Catherine and Heathcliff to that of Romeo and Juliet because the story of Romeo and Juliet is told in a play format, as a dramatic tragedy, and Wuthering Heights is told in a significantly different novel format. However both Romeo and Juliet and Catherine and Heathcliff faced insurmountable obstacles throughout their escapades that made being together much more difficult than any could have predicted. And it is their love that fuels the escapades that lead to the death of all four characters.

Unfortunately this theme could only be examined after rampant unintended plot summary, however many significant moments marked apt comparisons between both Shakespeare’s play and Bronte’s novel. These moments included: how the fateful lovers met, the overall differences in age between Romeo and Juliet and Catherine and Heathcliff, the literal and figurative banishment of both Romeo and Heathcliff, Juliet’s simulated suicide and Catherine’s attempt to will herself dead or insane, and the deadly result for all involved due to the intense motivational force of their destructive love. It was an interesting discovery to find and relate all the similarities of the two sets of lovers, and in fact, this writer came to understand the inherent value to be found in stories of star-crossed lovers and the desperate love that can destroy them all.


Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet | Source

References

Alexander, Peter, ed. Complete Works of William Shakespeare. UK: Harper Collins,1994.

Bergeron, David M. “Physical and Spiritual Sickness Infects the Lover’s World.”

Readings on Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Bruno Leone. 1998. 92-99.

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. New York: Norton & Co, 2003.

Cardullo, Bert. “The Character’s Impulsiveness is the Villain of the Play.” Readings on
Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Bruno Leone. 1998. 60-67.

Colaco, Jill. “The Meaning of the Night Visit in the Balcony Scenes.” Readings on
Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Bruno Leone. 1998. 84-91.

Dowden, Edward. “The Forces Driving the Play’s Main Characters.” Readings on
Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Bruno Leone. 1998. 50-59.

Erskine, John. “Shakespeare Simplified and Improved, an Old Story.” Readings on
Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Bruno Leone. 1998. 40-49.

Gillespie, Stuart. “Romeo and Juliet, and Introduction.” Complete Works of William
Shakespeare. UK: Harper Collins, 1994. 948-949.

Miller, J. Hillis. “Wuthering Heights: Repetition and the Uncanny.” Wuthering Heights.
Ed. Richard J. Dunn. 2003. 361-379.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Magnamity of Wuthering Heights.” The Profane Art: Essays
and Reviews. 1983. http://www.usfca.edu/~southerr/wuthering.html

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