Explore the different themes within Shakespeare's tragic play, Romeo and Juliet. Themes are central to understanding Romeo and Juliet as a play and identifying Shakespeare's social and political commentary.
From the beginning, we know that the story of Romeo and Juliet will end in tragedy. We also know that their tragic ends will not result from their own personal defects but from fate, which has marked them for sorrow. Emphasizing fate's control over their destinies, the Prologue tells us these "star-cross'd lovers'" relationship is deathmark'd."
In Act I, Scene ii, as Lord Capulet's servant is searching for someone who can read the guest list to him, Benvolio and Romeo enter. Completely by chance, Capulet's servant meets Romeo and Benvolio, wondering if they know how to read. This accidental meeting emphasizes the importance of fate in the play. Romeo claims it is his "fortune" to read — indeed, "fortune" or chance has led Capulet's servant to him — and this scene prepares us for the tragic inevitability of the play.
The lovers will be punished not because of flaws within their personalities but because fate is against them. Ironically, the servant invites Romeo to the Capulet's house, as long as he is not a Montague, to "crush a cup of wine." Only fate could manufacture this unlikely meeting with Capulet's illiterate servant, as only fate will allow Romeo to trespass into the Capulet's domain and meet Juliet.
Love is another important thematic element in the play, which presents various types of love: the sensual, physical love advocated by the Nurse; the Proper or contractual love represented by Paris; and the passionate, romantic love of Romeo and Juliet. How do these various types of love relate to one another? Is physical attraction a necessary component of romantic love? Because words are slippery, Juliet worries that Romeo's protestation of love are merely lies. How can we know if love is true?
Value and Doubleness
Another important theme is the idea of value and doubleness. Just as language is ambiguous, so are value judgments. As the Friar reminds us, "virtue itself turns vice being misapplied, /And vice sometime's by action dignified" (II.iii.17-18). Within a flower, for example lies both poison and medicine. Similarly, the deaths of Romeo and Juliet are tragic but also bring new life to Verona. The Friar's own role in the play contains this ambiguity. Although he tries to help the lovers, his actions lead to their suffering. Shakespeare's message is that nothing is purely good or evil; everything contains elements of both. Ambiguity rules.
Meaning of Gender
A final theme to be considered is the meaning of gender. In particular, the play offers a variety of versions of masculinity. One example is Mercutio, the showy male bird, who enjoys quarreling, fencing and joking. Mercutio has definite ideas about what masculinity should look like. He criticizes Tybalt for being too interested in his clothes and for speaking with a fake accent. Similarly, he suggests that Romeo's love-melancholy is effeminate, while his more sociable self is properly masculine. Therefore, his happiest when Romeo rejoins his witty, crazy group of male friends: "Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art thou art, by art as well as by nature" (II.iv.89-90).
Romeo's masculinity is constantly questioned. Following Mercutio's death, for example, Romeo fears that his love of Juliet has effeminized him: "Thy beauty hath made me effeminate/And in my temper soften'd valour's steel" (III.i.116-117) so that his reputation as a man is "stain'd" (III.i.1113). In addition, the Friar accuses Romeo of being an "[u]nseemly woman in a seeming man" and says that his tears are "womanish" (III.iii.109-111).
What is the proper role for a man? The play seems to suggest that violence is not the way. Mediating between Mercutio's violent temper and Romeo's passivity, the Prince is possibly the best model of masculine behavior in the play: impartial and fair, he also opposes civil violence.