5 Major Themes and Motifs in Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet”

It’s the first week of October, so regular readers of mine, you know the drill: it’s time to dive once again into my all-time favorite story, Romeo & Juliet! In the past, I’ve covered five points in the story that are often missed, the reasons it really is a great love story, a review of the book with both the play and the musical adaptation, and five lessons about love that can be learned from this story. Now I’m ready to cover even more of this timeless classic!

This year, I decided to dig a little deeper into the story and dedicate my annual R&J post to the literary devices that uphold it. So on that note, here are five major themes and motifs in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Enjoy!

1) The Power of Love

But my true love is grown to such excess / I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth. – Juliet Capulet (2.6.33–34)

This one is kind of a given, but it’s such a prominent theme in Romeo & Juliet that it forever warrants a place at the top of the list. Though debates reign about the extent of the roles of fate, hatred, and violence in the play, it’s obvious that love is by far the most powerful force in this story. It brings the young lovers together, motivates them to risk everything to be together, and drives them to their tragic end. So let’s explore how powerful love really is in Romeo & Juliet, shall we?

“Then have my lips the sin that they have took.” (1.5.110)
Romeo and Juliet share their first kiss (Romeo + Juliet, 1996)

To start, it’s important to define the type of love that dominates the play. There’s no question that the love in Romeo & Juliet is romantic, but what often gets overlooked is the fact that it’s also amoral. While other poets before him romanticized love as a beautiful and pure emotion, Shakespeare was more interested in portraying it as an intense and violent force that drives people into chaos and overpowers all other priorities, including life itself.

“You kiss by th’ book.” (1.5.112)
Romeo and Juliet find a moment of privacy at the Capulet Ball (Romeo & Juliet, 2013)

The greatest evidence of love’s intensity in Romeo & Juliet is the wide variety of descriptions and metaphors it receives throughout the play. In the sonnet that makes up Romeo and Juliet’s first conversation, love is described in religious terms, while in the prologue of Act II, the feeling is equated to magic. Its dangers are also mentioned by other characters: Friar Laurence warns Romeo about the fickleness of young love, while Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech outright criticizes the delusions of lovers’ dreams. Juliet even loves Romeo so much that she hardly has enough words to express her feelings all at once. Every character in the play seems to have an opinion on love, yet not one of them manages to describe it completely. It seems love, at least according to Shakespeare, is so powerful that it can’t be contained in any one definition.

Though the love in Romeo & Juliet is romantic, it’s far from idealized. Unlike the cheesy version in the bad poetry Romeo recites about Rosaline, Shakespeare’s depiction of love is a far more passionate and chaotic emotion that can evoke an astonishing amount of beauty and tragedy in a short period of time. No wonder this story is still so popular today; every time I read it, there’s something new to learn about love!

2) The Inevitability of Fate

A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents. – Friar Laurence (5.3.153–54)

The star-crossed lovers meet their untimely end (Romeo + Juliet, 1996)

If love is the strongest theme in Romeo & Juliet, fate is a close second. From the opening lines of the chorus, it’s made clear to the audience that the young lovers are pretty much doomed from the start. While there is a solid argument that society is really to blame for Romeo and Juliet’s deaths, the fact that Shakespeare peppered his play with references to fate, fortune, and the stars hints at the idea that every circumstance leading up to the main characters’ tragic end was always out of their control.

Notably, the role of fate in this story isn’t just clear to the audience; it’s also evident to the characters themselves. Through the second half of the play, after Mercutio and Tybalt are killed, death always seems to linger in the corner of the lovers’ minds. They’re both haunted by omens—such as each other’s pale faces after spending the night together or Juliet’s vision of Tybalt’s ghost before taking the sleeping potion—and though they try to stave off the looming threat of tragedy, it soon becomes clear that their story can only end in their untimely deaths.

The inevitability of fate is emphasized by the many forms it takes throughout the play:

  • The feud between the Capulets and Montagues, which is purposely never explained
  • References to fate by the characters – “O, I am fortune’s fool!” (3.1.141), “Then I defy you, stars.” (5.1.24)
  • Friar Laurence’s letter failing to reach Romeo
  • Romeo dying just before Juliet wakes up

While fate often seems like an external and impersonal divine force driving the characters’ lives, it also manifests as the direct forces influencing Romeo and Juliet’s choices. The rivalry between the noble households culminates in the double murder that complicates the lovers’ marriage, and Capulet’s decision to change the day of the wedding contributes to the rush of events that leads to the final tragedy. Even the protagonists themselves play directly into the hands of fate. The irony of Romeo’s decision to die alongside Juliet is that by trying to defy fate, he inadvertently brings it about: Juliet kills herself as soon as she finds him dead, thus completing the tragic sequence of events set in motion from the play’s very first scene.

Juliet stabs herself with Romeo’s dagger and dies by his side (Romeo and Juliet, 1968)

Much like love, fate in Romeo & Juliet is an amoral and overpowering force that none of the characters can resist. Despite all their efforts to love each other in peace, Romeo and Juliet can never escape their tragic destiny as the “pair of star-crossed lovers” who “take their life”, immortalizing them as the ill-fated couple of one of the greatest love stories ever told.

3) The Duality of Passion (Love and Violence)

If the entire story of Romeo & Juliet could be summed up in one word, that word would be passion. Almost every scene in the play involves characters succumbing to powerful emotions that drive their actions and, consequently, the plot. Observe:

  • “My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” (2.2.133–35)

    Act I: Montague and Capulet servants fight each other in the street (establishing the long-standing feud), Romeo agrees to attend the Capulet ball for the chance to see a girl he thinks he loves, Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love at first sight

  • Act II: Romeo risks death by trespassing into the Capulet orchard to see Juliet again, Romeo and Juliet declare their love for each other, Romeo proposes to Juliet the next day (via the Nurse), Romeo and Juliet get married
  • Act III: Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel for crashing the Capulet ball, Mercutio fights Tybalt to defend Romeo’s honor, Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo fights and kills Tybalt to avenge Mercutio, Romeo almost kills himself out of guilt, Romeo spends the night with Juliet, Capulet threatens to disown Juliet if she doesn’t marry Paris in two days
  • Act IV: Juliet threatens to kill herself if Friar Laurence can’t help her get out of marrying Paris, Capulet gets so excited about Juliet becoming obedient that he moves the wedding up to tomorrow, Juliet drinks the sleeping potion Friar Laurence gives her to fake her death
  • Act V: Romeo buys poison to kill himself after hearing that Juliet has died, Paris blocks Romeo from entering the Capulet tomb upon assuming he’s there to vandalize Juliet and Tybalt’s bodies, Romeo kills Paris outside the Capulet tomb, Romeo drinks the poison and dies beside Juliet, Juliet wakes up and stabs herself with Romeo’s dagger, Montague and Capulet reconcile over their children’s deaths

Notice how virtually every important action in this play is caused by some intense emotion, whether it’s overpowering love or violent hatred. What’s especially intriguing about the passion in Romeo & Juliet is that love and violence, however polar they may seem, are constantly intertwined. Indeed, the shadow of death hangs over the play’s characters from the prologue to the final scene, and it always manifests as a consequence of passion, as much in love as in hate.

“Ha, banishment? Be merciful, say death.” (3.3.12)

The connection between love and violence in Romeo & Juliet is most evident in the actions and thoughts of the lovers themselves. Both Romeo and Juliet threaten to kill themselves at the first obstacle to their love, each one imagines the other looking dead the morning after their wedding night, and their intensely passionate “star-crossed love” culminates in their double suicide. While their goal is always to keep their love pure, the fact that they both resort to violence to achieve that end supports the story’s major theme of passion as a powerful and blinding force that few can resist.

By all accounts, passion seems to be the cause of all the conflict and grief in Romeo & Juliet. Then again, without passion, there would be no story in the first place, would there?

4) Light and Darkness

More light and light, more dark and dark our woes. – Romeo Montague (3.5.36)

“Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds” (3.2.1)

A particularly prominent motif in Romeo & Juliet is the imagery of light and darkness. This motif manifests most frequently in night and day, as much of the action in the play happens either at night or in the morning. And while it doesn’t necessarily highlight any moral statement, the light and dark imagery of Romeo & Juliet does provide an interesting contrast throughout the story.

The most famous example of this imagery is during the balcony scene when Romeo describes Juliet as the sun, being so beautiful and radiant that she has the power to turn night into day. Another well-known example of this contrast is the morning after their wedding night, when the lovers playfully argue about the time of day before Romeo leaves for Mantua. These scenes highlight differing perspectives of the world and emphasize how Romeo and Juliet seek refuge in their love to oppose the reality that threatens to separate them.

“Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.” (3.5.1)

Unlike many other stories that use this motif to symbolize good and evil, the light and darkness in Romeo & Juliet are far more neutral. The lovers favor darkness because it gives them the privacy they desire, yet they see only light in each other. And although it never plays a direct role in their story, the contrast of light and dark does permeate the play until it culminates in a final poetic union: the darkness of Romeo and Juliet’s deaths and the light of hope in their families’ reconciliation.

5) Individuality vs. Social Conformity

“Alla stoccata carries it away.” (3.1.77)

While love and fate pull most of the strings in Romeo & Juliet, the lives of the main characters are further complicated by the obstacles imposed by their society. Throughout the story, Romeo and Juliet struggle (with varying degrees of success) to defy the social institutions that oppose their love, such as:

  • Family and patriarchy
  • Religion
  • Law and social order
  • Masculine honor

Yet despite the challenges they face, the young lovers repeatedly prove that their love is stronger than the social norms that threaten to keep them apart. Juliet defies her father’s authority in order to marry the man she loves and remain loyal to him to the end. Romeo compares Juliet to the sun and considers her more beautiful than the goddess of the moon, while Juliet refers to Romeo as the “god of my idolatry” (2.2.114). While still banished, Romeo returns to Verona to see Juliet one last time before he dies. Romeo refuses Tybalt’s challenge for Juliet’s sake (though he later succumbs to the pressure of honor after Mercutio is killed).

By constantly rebelling against their world, Romeo and Juliet establish themselves as individuals who seek to distance themselves from the obligations their public social lives impose upon them. Yet despite their best efforts to rebel through individuality, these social institutions continue to force them further into a corner until they’re left with only one option for escape. If anything, the greatest tragedy of Romeo & Juliet is that as powerful and beautiful as their love is, they can only find peace from their poisonous society through the ultimate form of darkness and privacy: an eternity together in death.

“For never was a story of more woe, / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” (5.3.309–10)

What are your thoughts on these themes and motifs in Romeo & Juliet? Any other interesting themes you would add to this list?

What I Love About You

I love you and everything about you.

I love how compatible we are and how well we get along.
I love how much brighter my life has been since you came into it.

I love the way you look at me with those adoring brown eyes.
I love the way you smile at me every time you see me.
I love the way you tell me that I’m beautiful, that I’m smart, that I’m wonderful, and that you can’t imagine your life without me.

I love that I can’t imagine my life without you either.

I love that you’re an artist and that you know what being an artist entails.
I love that you’re an introvert too, so you also understand the challenges of dealing with people.

I love that you support my writing as much as I support your music.
I love that you respect my passion enough to always give me the time and space I need to finish a piece.
I love that you can handle being in a relationship with a crazy writer.

I love your sense of humor.
I love the way you tease me and how you can always make me laugh.
I love how we share so many ridiculous jokes that only we understand.

I love how I can always count on you to hug me when I cry and make me feel better when I’m sad.
I love that no matter what happens, I always have you.

I love believing that as long as we have each other, anything is possible.

I love how we can talk about anything, or even just sit together in silence and enjoy each other’s company.
I love just being in the same room with you.

I love waking up next to you every day and falling asleep next to you every night.
I love that we don’t have to say good night through a computer screen anymore.
I love that we can finally look into each other’s eyes and kiss each other for real.

I love that you waited for me.
I love that no matter how hard it was or how anxious we both were, you never stopped believing that someday we’d be together again.
I love that you were right.

I love that I can write totally cheesy romantic poems about you and still mean every single word.
I love that you still inspire me to write romantic poetry, even after knowing you for years.

I love how there are so many things I love about you that the word Love doesn’t even sound like a word anymore.

I love loving you.
I love that you love me.
And I love how after all these years of waiting, we can finally be together for good.

I love you, my love. And I always will.


Happy Birthday to my wonderful boyfriend! You will always be the light of my life! I love you, sweetheart!

3 Ways Being in Love Can Inspire Your Writing

There’s nothing quite like being in love, and for a writer who’s passionate about romance, it can be a gold mine of inspiration. I know that ever since I fell in love (most recently), I’ve found it much easier to write romantic stories and poetry, and even fiction in general. There’s plenty of creative inspiration to be found in love, so it’s only natural for artists to include so much of it in their art!

So for fun, today’s post is dedicated to a special someone who inspires much of my creative side. Here are three ways I’ve found that being in love can inspire your writing. Enjoy!

1) Being in love brings out the beauty in life.

As much as it sounds like a scene out of a cheesy romantic cartoon, being in love really does make the world around you more beautiful. And beauty is at the heart of so many of the most sincere and emotional works of art. Ever since falling in love, I’ve had a brighter outlook on life and a much deeper insight into the positive things in the world, and these have certainly manifested in my stories as romantic plots, satisfying conflict resolution, and happy endings.

If you are or have ever been mutually in love, chances are you too have seen the world become a little brighter for it. You may know it poetically as “rose-colored glasses”, “butterflies in your stomach”, or “head over heels”, and maybe it’s even gone as far as to make you want to dance or shout with joy. Don’t limit that light to your real-world experiences; let it guide your imagination too! Write about the fluttering of the heart in a moment of passion or how much more vivid colors become through the eyes of a person in love. If writers should write what they know, then why not write about the magic in your life? It can often make for the most beautiful works of art!

2) Being in love helps relieve stress and anxiety.

Sometimes I don’t even need to be writing romance to be inspired by love. As many writers well know, stress and anxiety can be real creativity killers depending on the kind of stories or poetry you’re trying to write. Unfortunately, the times we’re living in seem to be producing an overabundance of those bad feelings, which can translate into a severe lack of motivation for many of us. Maybe you can turn that anxiety into an aggressive streak of darker stories and poetry if that’s your style, but for writers like me, who favor romance and happy endings, it generally puts me out of the mood to create at all.

So whenever I’m feeling too stressed or anxious to write, I remind myself of how happy my significant other makes me and how good a place I’ve been in since we fell in love. Maybe it goes against the grain of the “tortured artist” stereotype, but I’m sure I do most of my best (or at least most productive) work when I feel emotionally fulfilled and free of tension. That’s not to say one should only ever use positive experiences in their fiction or poetry; after all, conflict is at the heart of every engaging story and many of the most interesting poems, and you absolutely should accept inspiration from your negative experiences too. But if you can, let real-life love motivate you to at least get those words out of your head. Not only is it one of the best treatments against stress and anxiety, it’s also a great cure for writer’s block!

3) Being in love can motivate you to be a better writer.

The great thing about love is that when you find it with the right person, you inspire each other to become better people. If nothing else, being in love gives me the motivation I need to be the best version of myself I can be. The amazing feeling of being loved by someone else pushes me to keep improving in the areas of my life that matter most, and few of those areas matter more to me than my passion for writing.

So I keep on giving it my all when I write, because if I deserve that special someone who works hard for both of us and does everything he can to support my passion, then he deserves someone who will work just as hard to help support him through her craft and keep coloring his life with all the art she creates. Relationships are all about teamwork, and if you’re really in love, you’ll want to put in the effort to make yours work. And if that includes being a better writer, then by all means let your love push you to keep reaching for those creative stars!

What about you? Have you ever been in love? How has that love inspired your writing?

Off The Bookshelf: Sense and Sensibility

Back in January, I finally returned to my Off The Bookshelf segment with a review of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. So today, I’d like to continue my reviews by writing about the other Austen novel I read last year. Since I’ve definitely been enjoying reading her literature, there was really only one novel I could review next: Sense and Sensibility!

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

Summary

Sense and Sensibility was Austen’s debut novel, first published in London in 1811. The story follows sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood as they adjust to their new life with their widowed mother and younger sister, who have all been left impoverished after Mr. Dashwood’s death. Over the course of the narrative, the sisters experience love, romance, and heartbreak, and eventually come to realize that they must learn to master the delicate balance between sense and sensibility in order to achieve happiness.

Review

Though I wouldn’t say I liked it as much as Pride and Prejudice, I enjoyed Sense and Sensibility for Austen’s realistic take on romance and manners, seasoned with all her classic humor and wit. Much like in the author’s more popular novel, the main characters of this story are faced with the challenge of finding love in a world where their low income and social status put them at a severe disadvantage. What really sets this novel apart from its successor, however, is the comparison it draws between the tempers of Elinor and Marianne, who each occupy one extreme of the romance-realism spectrum.

Movie poster for Sense and Sensibility (1995)

As the title suggests, the most prominent theme in Sense and Sensibility is the contrast between good sense and overt sensitivity (known as sensibility back then). As the eldest Dashwood sister, Elinor has the best judgment in her family and is highly skilled at exercising good sense and composure. Her younger sister Marianne, on the other hand, has no control over her emotions and no desire to keep her overly sensitive demeanor in check, favoring romantic idealism over etiquette. This contrast between their personalities makes for several interesting situations throughout the story, but in the end both sisters learn the same valuable lesson: too much sense or sensibility only leads to unhappiness. Only after Elinor learns to open her heart to sensibility and Marianne learns to temper her spontaneity with sense do they both achieve their happy endings.

Another major theme in the book is the role of money and social standing in romance. Though her novels all have happy endings, Jane Austen was never one to tell an idealistic love story; in her view, even the truest love isn’t immune to the real-world obstacle of low income. In the most notable example, Marianne and Willoughby seem like a perfect match: they’re both romantic and outspoken about their opinions on art and love, and spend so much time together that everyone assumes they’re engaged before they even say a word. Unfortunately, being one of the author’s well-known “hero caricatures”, the charming Willoughby couldn’t be anything less than a scoundrel, and sure enough, his expensive tastes coupled with Marianne’s poverty lead him to jilt her for a wealthy young lady he doesn’t love. Funnily enough, the same obstacle of wealth turns out to be a saving grace for Edward Ferrars, who for most of the story finds himself honor-bound to a loveless engagement only to be saved at the end from said commitment by his disinheritance from his mother, leaving him free to give his heart to Elinor after his conniving fiancé abandons him. From beginning to end, wherever there are love and romance, the shadow of money looms in the background.

Overall, Sense and Sensibility is an enjoyable read that shows less-than-idealistic romance in a humorous light, as well as an interesting dynamic of character development between two polar opposite sisters. Just as Marianne learns from Elinor that excessive emotion can destroy one’s life, Elinor learns from Marianne that excessive repression of emotion leads to intense suffering and risk of abandonment. Still, in true Austen fashion, both sisters achieve their happy endings by the story’s conclusion, finding comfortable lives with gentlemen who can provide them with all the security and emotional fulfillment they desire. In this way, from her very first novel, the author reveals that despite all the realistic obstacles in its way, romance can still thrive in a world plagued with social barriers, a hope not yet forgotten in the modern age.

Inspiration

Much like Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility offers a glimpse into the romantic and realistic elements of past life that have survived into the present. The novel also teaches a valuable lesson on the importance of both practicing good sense and being willingly sensitive, albeit a somewhat imbalanced one that favors sense. We shouldn’t give our emotions total control over our happiness, but we also shouldn’t be afraid to feel vulnerable in the pursuit of love. There are plenty of opportunities in life to be both sensible and sensitive; it’s all a matter of exercising the right judgment.

Though her novels often highlight the limitations placed on women in the society of her day, Jane Austen clearly had a way of demonstrating the strength that women have always had to succeed within their means. Because of that, I know I can always turn to one of her novels for inspiration on writing heroines with real personalities, issues, and aspirations. Whether you seek inspiration for historical fiction, realistic characters, or contrasting themes in human behavior, Sense and Sensibility is an excellent novel that warrants a place beside Pride and Prejudice on any Austen fan’s bookshelf.

To Love Someone Forever

To love someone intensely is to feel
Complete beside the person you adore.
When life gives you a love so pure and real,
You live each day to feel it more and more.

To love someone with all your heart and soul
Is finding one with whom to share your life,
So when your trials start to take their toll,
You’ll find peace with your husband or your wife.

To love someone forever is to know
The joy of having someone on your side.
No matter what you do or where you go,
You’ll always be together for the ride.

All that I’ve learned of love, you two taught me.
I love you! Happy Anniversary!

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