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The Multifaceted Representation of Love in William Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet": Timing and Passion

Updated on May 12, 2014

The title Romeo and Juliet is nearly synonymous with the phrase “classic love story.” If a man is being incredibly romantic, he is playfully dubbed “Romeo,” and a giddy, love-struck woman may earn a mention of Juliet.

The reference has permeated countless modern love stories and represents an ideal of powerful, passionate love to be aspired to. Movies, books, and songs have recreated the tale, modernized it, parodied it, paralleled it, referenced it, and alluded to it in the years since Shakespeare adapted it from its ancient origins; how appropriate it is, then, that the legend has remained so prominent and continued to be adapted and retold, as Shakespeare did himself.

Having earned the label of “classic,” it is still well known and loved today, but quite dissimilar from many modern, popular love stories. Romeo and Juliet takes a distinct approach to the concept of true love and the reality of relationships; it is an honest, relatable reminder of the imperfection of time, life, and love, the intensity of human emotions, and the power behind those emotions.

The famous Chandos Portrait of William Shakespeare, ca. 1616.
The famous Chandos Portrait of William Shakespeare, ca. 1616. | Source

Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo and Juliet" (full movie)

Timing

Hollywood’s answer to attracting an audience for a romantic movie today is simple: a happy ending. While there are films, books, and songs that don’t hold to this, the happy ending formula is the most prevalent for massively popular pieces of entertainment.

Romeo and Juliet, of course, does not fall into this category; as a tragic love story, it is, with no surprise, tragic. The ending speaks to our realities rather than our fantasies, unlike so many contemporary love stories. While they often use time for their benefit, with a series of perfect coincidences and opportune moments, Romeo and Juliet reminds us that timing is a fickle thing.

Perhaps the greatest example of this in the play is the scene that would likely have served as the happy ending for a modern tale, but does quite the opposite for the play and fulfills its classification as “tragic” instead. Romeo, unaware that Juliet’s death is a ruse, is distraught beside her bier, prepared to take his own life in order to join her for eternity. In his final speech, he recognizes that she doesn’t seem deceased:

. . . —O my love, my wife!
Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon they beauty.
Thou art not conquered. Beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death’s pale flag is not advancèd there.—

(V.iii.100-105)

Rather, she appears still so close to life, and he laments the unfortunate timing, as it seems he just missed her. The heart-wrenching irony, of course, is that she is not, in fact, dead. Romeo comes so frustratingly close to knowing this before consuming the poison, from his observations of her appearance—still flushed, and not yet pale with death—and the mere moments between his death and her awakening. These mere moments are what differentiate a Hollywood happy ending from Romeo and Juliet’s embrace of reality’s harsh potential; timing as a double-edged sword.

"But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she. . . .
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eye in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night."

(II.i.44-64)

Definition

Passion - any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling

Romeo and Juliet (2013) (full movie)

Passion: Love and Violence

In accordance with this tragic ending, Shakespeare shows his interest in reality’s harsh potential throughout the play by examining the relationship between love and violence.

While the idea of passion often leads us to think of love and romance, it’s true meaning is simply “any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling” (“passion”). In Romeo and Juliet, “passion” serves to describe both intense love and intense hatred—yet another double-edged sword—and this is the key to understanding the portrayal of death and violence in the play.

It is no coincidence that these two extreme emotions are exactly opposite one another; Shakespeare uses this to demonstrate that, while love and hate can be so very different, they can also be quite the same when both considered as passion, and lead to the same tragic ends.

Artist unknown. Act I, Scene I: Capulets, including Tybalt, confront Montagues, ca. 1873.
Artist unknown. Act I, Scene I: Capulets, including Tybalt, confront Montagues, ca. 1873. | Source

Tybalt and Passionate Hatred

Tybalt is the manifesting character for intense hatred, from his first appearance in the play:

“What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word, / As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee. / Have at thee, coward!” (I.i.60-63)

... to Romeo and Juliet’s star-crossed moment at the ball:

“This, by his voice, should be a Montague.— / (to his PAGE) Fetch me my rapier, boy.— / . . . / Now, by the stock and honor of my kin, / To strike him dead I hold it not a sin” (I.v.52-53, 57-58)

... to the violent scene of his and Mercutio’s deaths:

TYBALT. Romeo, the love I bear thee can afford
No better term than this: thou art a villain.
ROMEO. Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee
Doth much excuse the appertaining rage
To such a greeting. Villain am I none.
Therefore, farewell. I see thou know’st me not.
TYBALT. Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries
That thou hast done me. Therefore turn and draw.

(III.i.31-38)

Throughout his appearances in the play, Tybalt’s character showcases the blind rage between the Capulet and Montague families. He does not know Romeo personally, yet asserts him as a villain simply for being a Montague and loving Juliet, a Capulet. It is absurd, and therefore perfectly embodies the absurdity of the feud itself—as does his blatant ignorance of Romeo’s attempt to calmly dismiss his insult and offer reason against hating one another.

At the ball, he immediately and with full-hearted conviction determines to kill Romeo, again, simply for being a Montague. This trend began with his anger against the Montague servants in his first scene, and his furious disregard at the possibility of peace between the families.

Thus, he is blind with rage, unwilling to compromise, and set on a crash course for disaster from the very beginning. As a true tragedy would have it, Tybalt meets his own bloody end at the hands of Romeo after murdering Mercutio. His entire characterization, all the way through his violent death, conveys the dangerous potential of passion in the form of hatred.

Frank Dicksee, "Representing the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet," ca. 1884, oil on canvas, 45.5 x 65.5 in, Southampton City Art Gallery, Southampton, England.
Frank Dicksee, "Representing the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet," ca. 1884, oil on canvas, 45.5 x 65.5 in, Southampton City Art Gallery, Southampton, England. | Source
Engraving by James Stow (c. 1770–1820) after painting by John Francis Rigaud (1742–1810), "Act III, Scene 5: Romeo takes leave of Juliet," ca. 1797.
Engraving by James Stow (c. 1770–1820) after painting by John Francis Rigaud (1742–1810), "Act III, Scene 5: Romeo takes leave of Juliet," ca. 1797. | Source

Romeo, Juliet, and Passionate Love

While Romeo exhibits a range of intense emotions, including a rage equal to Tybalt’s when he kills him, he and Juliet characterize passion in the form of love.

The young lovers, driven apart by the bitter feud between their families that Tybalt so perfectly embodies, face obstacles at every turn. Often, these complications steer them to thoughts of suicide, seemingly the only way to escape the forces against them.

After his banishment from Verona, Romeo is distraught at being banished, in truth, from Juliet:

Ha, banishment? Be merciful, say “death,”
For exile hath more terror in his look,
Much more than death. Do not say “banishment.”

(III.iii.12-14)

‘Tis torture and not mercy. Heaven is here,
Where Juliet lives,
. . .
And sayst thou yet that exile is not death?
Hadst thou no poison mixed, no sharp-ground knife,
No sudden mean of death, though ne’er so mean,
But “banishèd” to kill me? . . .

(III.iii.29-30, 43-46)

In utter heartbreak, Romeo laments to Friar Lawrence that death would be less punishment than exile, that he simply cannot bear living without Juliet, and asks for the means to commit suicide. His love for her is so intense that, when blocked, sends him directly to violence and death as the seemingly necessary solution.

Juliet comes to a similar conclusion, markedly also to Friar Lawrence, after learning that she is to marry Paris in a matter of days:

If in thy wisdom thou canst give no help,
Do thou but call my resolution wise,
And with this knife I’ll help it presently.
God joined my heart and Romeo’s, thou our hands.
And ere this hand, by thee to Romeo sealed,
Shall be the label to another deed,
Or my true heart with treacherous revolt
Turn to another, this shall slay them both.

(IV.i.53-60)

In a manner so similar to Romeo’s, Juliet sees death as an infallible method of preserving her love for him, a way to prevent marrying another by force, as is the present threat, or someday loving another by choice, which she declares would be treachery against herself, Romeo, and their love.

Following this mentality, the lovers’ fearless willingness towards death in these scenes foreshadows the ultimate ending of double suicide, the ultimate manifestation of love leading to violence.

Their passion was so great, so consuming, that they were willing to sacrifice their lives in order to protect and preserve it from opposing forces, finding comfort in the eternity of death. As a form of passion, love, then, as much as hate, proves its potential for devastation.

Romeo and Juliet (full movie)

"O Romeo, 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."

(II.i.74-78)

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Shakespeare utilized elements of timing, a broad view of passion, and the way they work dependently on one another as tools in his multifaceted representation of love in Romeo and Juliet.

As the driving forces towards love, death, violence, and all other events in the play, it is necessary to recognize the great power of timing and passion that he is illustrating; mere moments can mean the difference between happiness and misery, war and peace, life and death—literally—and the intensity of our emotions makes us capable of significantly rerouting history.

To understand the power these elements hold, imagine Tybalt had considered Romeo’s reasoning for peace; or that Romeo’s grand speech lasted just minutes more; or that Romeo had received Friar Lawrence’s letter; how drastically changed would the story be? And more so, would it still be regarded as a “classic” love story today? Probably not.

Shakespeare’s very specific and very tragic message about love—made with these sad or frustrating twists of time and passion—is what has carried the reference to fame and made Romeo and Juliet’s love so beautiful, so powerful, and so enduring.

References

Craig, W.J., ed. “[Romeo and Juliet].” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. London: Oxford University Press: 1914; Bartleby.com, 2000. www.bartleby.com/70/. [18 Oct 2013].

"passion." Dictionary.com. IAC Corporation, n.d. Web. 16 Oct 2013. <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/passion?s=t>.

© 2014 Niki Hale

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    • Mike Nolan profile image

      Michael Nolan 2 years ago from Sarasota, FL

      One thing about Romeo is that he never does anything halfway. When we first see him he is so hung up over Rosaline, he can't think of anything else. After meeting Juliet, he completely forgets about Rosaline. When Mercutio is killed, his rage overcomes him. Then when he thinks Juliet is dead his first thought is suicide. Nothing in moderation for Romeo.