Shakespeare's Love in Romeo and Juliet and Sonnets

Topics: Plays

Shakespeare presents love as a polarizing force through both Romeo and Juliet and a selection of his sonnets. Unrequited and courtly, it evokes feelings of great anguish yet when reciprocated and true, brings great joy, albeit in fleeting moments. Spiritual love can evolve into a pure entity, transcending physical attraction and even death – also allowing the protagonists of the play to transcend the bitter feud of their families.

Shakespeare first presents the idea of unrequited love in Romeo and Juliet as being afflictive and filled with despair – Romeo is a typical Petrarchan, courtly lover in Act 1 Scene 1; his feelings of love have not been reciprocated by Rosaline, and this causes him to dwell on his emotional torment.

Romeo shuts himself in his room and ‘makes himself an artificial night’, he isolates himself in complete darkness to represent his state of deep depression and suffering. He uses the exaggerated cliches of typical Petrarchan poetry to illustrate his suffering, for example “Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health”.

Here, the lightness of the feather could represent the lightness one feels during love, contrasting with the heaviness of lead, to represent how unrequited love causes a heavy heart. Romeo uses these oxymorons to blend the joys of love with the emotional anguish of unrequited love and also to demonstrate his mixed emotions felt for Rosaline. These descriptions additionally show us that most of his understanding of love has been taken from the typical courtly/ Petrarchan love – they are filled with the feelings of great torment usually accompanied with this type of love.

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Courtly love is an idealized, infatuated form of love in which a courtier devotes himself to an unattainable woman (usually married). Romeo’s use of traditional Petrarchan cliches portray him as a young, inexperienced lover who is more fixated on the concept of love depicted in Petrarchan poetry, rather than actually being in love. The Elizabethan audience Romeo and Juliet would have been performed to would have been very aware of the idea of courtly/ Petrarchan love in poetry, as they were heavily exposed to the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Philip Sidney.

Unrequited love that causes torment and great suffering is similarly explored in Sonnet 28. In the poem, the speaker personifies day and night as forces that, though usually are at odds with one another, work together to “oppress” him. They “shake hands” – usually the oppression brought by the toils of day would be “eas’d by night”, in that the speaker could rest but he complains that this is not the case as he is plagued by thoughts of how far away he remains from his love.

The speaker hopes the ‘oppression’ of day and night may be stopped with flattery. “Thou art bright and dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven” – the speaker’s object of affection is ‘bright’; when it is cloudy his beloved takes the place of the sun so day can be just as beautiful. He also flatters the night with ‘when sparkling stars twire not, though gild’st the even’ – again ‘thou’ refers to the beloved of the speaker (the fair youth), who shines to make the night beautiful when the stars ‘twire not’.

Because of the misery felt by the speaker in Sonnet 28 during both day and night, he can be linked to Romeo in Act 1 Scene 1, who similarly suffers the torment of his unrequited love during both day and night. Romeo suffers from ‘still-waking sleep’ and we learn from Benvolio and Lord Montague that he walks the streets of Verona “an hour before the woshipp’d sun peer’d forth from the golden window of the east”, “with tears augmenting the morning’s dew”. Thus, like the speaker in Sonnet 28, Romeo finds no rest or relief from his suffering at night.

The use of the opposites of day and night in Sonnet 28 also links to the oxymorons used by Romeo in Act 1 Scene 1; the contrasts used by the speaker and Romeo again highlight their mixed emotions and distressed state of mind. The love between Romeo and Juliet is presented as being spiritual and sacred, highly contrasting with Romeo’s past infatuation for Rosaline. Romeo and Juliet’s entire first conversation is an intertwined fourteen line sonnet in which they develop a complicated religious metaphor.

The sonnet is typically associated with the theme of love; it is clear that the pair are falling in love but also the rigid, ‘flawless’ form of a sonnet suggests their shared love will be perfect. The fact that Romeo and Juliet share the sonnet is significant, as their love is shared, contrasting with unrequited love Romeo had for Rosaline at the beginning of the play, and also contradicting the love described in typical Petrarchan sonnets. Shakespeare also presents the love between Romeo and Juliet as spiritual and sacred, through the use of the extended metaphor in the shared sonnet.

However before the shared sonnet, Romeo notices her from a distance and describes her using light images which suggest the physical attraction felt for her, for example ‘she doth teach the torches to burn bright! ’ Rosaline was always associated with dark imagery, but throughout the play Juliet is always portrayed in light, white images, suggesting her purity but also the fact that she shall bring Romeo out of his darkness of courtly love and teach him to love profoundly.

These contrasts of light and dark imagery are further explored when he compares Juliet to “a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear” upon seeing her from across the ballroom. ‘Rich jewel’ obviously signifies that she is precious and he imagines Juliet shining out against darkness. Darkness is an important aspect of their love, as they can only be together when the day is over. Romeo’s contrasts of Juliet against dark images could signify that her beauty contrasts with and stands out against the darkness of the night they meet in.

During the sonnet, Romeo compares Juliet to a ‘holy shrine’ and his lips to ‘two blushing pilgrims’; the use of ‘holy shrine’ illustrates that Romeo’s love for Juliet is elevated, but also the religious metaphor and the purity of the sonnet shows that their love is sacred. The religious overtones associate their love with purity and sacredness, transcending the physical attraction experienced when they first meet. The fact that the sonnet so naturally fits into the dialogue of the scene highlights the compatibility of the two– they speak in shared verse, complementing each other to create a fixed meter and rhyme scheme.

There may also be a darker purpose to Shakespeare’s use of the sonnet form here. It echoes the opening sonnet, reminding the audience that Romeo and Juliet are ‘star cross’d lovers’ and doomed to a tragic fate. Shakespeare also explores a true, pure love in Sonnet 116. Shakespeare infuses marital language to demonstrate a true love; traditional marriage vows are echoed in the word ‘impediment’ and in his choice to describe true love as a ‘marriage’ of true minds.

Although there is some ambiguity in whether the sonnet is describing a platonic or romantic love, the use of the word ‘alter’ could also suggest a wedding altar – again infusing marital language, suggesting that the love implied is romantic. The quote ‘the marriage of true minds’ itself, suggests the joining together of two compatible intellects, associating with the compatibility of Romeo and Juliet where their shared sonnet seems to fit their dialogue naturally.

Spiritual love is also explored in Sonnet 116, presented through Shakespeare’s choice to use the word ‘minds’ rather than a physical image (such as bodies), implying that the love described supersedes physical attraction to a spiritual level. By describing love using ‘star’, it implies that it is celestial; further illustrating that the love presented is spiritual. The power of love and its ability to transcend even death is also explored in both Sonnet 116 and Romeo and Juliet.

Some words of the sonnet are repeated, for example ‘alter’ and ‘alteration, and ‘remover’ and ‘remove’; these specific words again highlight that true love is spiritual as beauty may fade but this true love does not. However, these words also suggest that love is unchanging and eternal. The repetition emphasises that love has a sense of constancy (it is everlasting), which links to the end of Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo say’s “Thus with a kiss I die” and Juliet mirrors with “I will kiss thy lips; Haply, some poison yet doth hang on them”.

Their love is perpetual – their love which birthed with a kiss now ends with one. Love outlasting death in both Sonnet 116 and Romeo and Juliet again presents love as being eternal and everlasting. For example, in Romeo and Juliet in Act 5 Scene 3, Romeo says “Shall I believe that unsubstantial death is amorous”; he asks this bitterly, believing that Juliet is so beautiful that death has preserved her to be death’s own lover, suggesting that Juliet – along with her love for Romeo – lives on after death.

The audience is aware that Romeo is seeing the physical signs of Juliet’s recovery from drug-induced sleep – it is ironic that his attraction to her even in death encourages him to press onward with his own suicide, just as she is about to awaken. Throughout this scene, death becomes an act of love for Romeo, as he thinks that suicide will allow him to be reunited with Juliet. Shakespeare also demonstrates the true love having the ability to transcend death in Sonnet 116 through ‘but bears it out to the edge of doom’, with ‘doom’ referring to doomsday.

Here, love can stand the width of time and does not change appearance or position, thus suggesting everlasting love can overcome even death. Shakespeare uses language associated with extremes to show the power of love, confirming love as a positive force that triumphs over the prospect of “doom”. As Romeo and Juliet are the only two characters in the entirety of the play that can dismiss their families’ feud, it implies the power of their love. Love is also shown to empower Juliet as her language and actions are quite forward and mature.

While love seems to bring out Romeo’s rash nature and resulting naivety, Juliet (in contrast) appears mature for her years. She encourages him to make the first move when she says ‘Saints do not move; though grant for prayer’ meaning that saints (usually as they are represented by statues) do not move, but she could also be referencing the other meaning of the word ‘move’ (to start something) suggesting her reluctance to make the first move, but also hinting that his ‘prayer’ is likely to be granted, encouraging him to kiss her.

This is surprising for the era as in Shakespeare’s day women were subservient to men; the man would always be dominant in the relationship. Juliet’s forwardness demonstrates how she defies common convention and her maturity as a lover, but also how her love for Romeo empowers her. Shakespeare demonstrates how the themes of love and hate are inextricably linked in his presentation of how Romeo and Juliet seem to never be able to escape the feud between their families.

At the very beginning of the play, we see a fight between servants of the Montagues and the Capulets in the streets of Verona, revealing how the conflict between the two families has infiltrated every layer of society; from the servants to the lords. Romeo and Juliet are the only two characters that can dismiss the feud, highlighting the fact that their shared love is unchanging and true.

For example, in Act 2 Scene 2, Juliet says “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; so Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d”; she tells Romeo that a name is a meaningless convention and refuses to believe that Romeo is defined by his name, therefore implying that the two can love each other without fear of the social repercussions. However, earlier on in the play, Tybalt says “talk of peace? I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee. ” This again shows the bitterness of the hate between the Montagues and the Capulets; he suggests the two families will never achieve peace.

However the feuding between the Montagues and the Capulets, both families belonging to aristocracy, was not seen as something uncommon by the Elizabethan audience. The upper classes were notorious for fighting each other in order to increase their economic and social influence. Clashes of supporters of two households in the streets of the city were often seen during Elizabeth’s reign – the authorites obviously did not approve and Prince Escalus’ appearance and speech in the first scene was common to Shakespeare’s audience.

The themes of love and hate being linked is further presented throughout Romeo and Juliet, where scenes of love between the ‘star-cross’d lovers’ are often followed by scenes of hate and violence. For example in Act 2 Scene 4 (the scene before the marriage of Romeo and Juliet) Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, challenges Romeo to fight a duel with him; no other characters but the lovers can dismiss the feud, also illustrating that their love is true and sincere.

Shakespeare also presents strong themes of erotic love and lust in both Romeo and Juliet and Sonnet 128 as being more associated with infatuation than true, romantic love. We see that in Romeo and Juliet, many characters perceive love in terms of sexual conquest rather than affection. For example, Juliet’s nurse’s seems to associate marriage with sexual intercourse and having children and this is shown when she quotes her husband “thou wilt fall backwards when thou com’st to age” after Juliet had fallen over when she was younger.

This suggests that she sees sex as the main aspect of marriage. This is further highlighted in the quote “women grow by men”, referring to Juliet’s potential coupling with Paris and the way she will increase her social status in marrying him. Alternatively, the nurse may be suggesting the literal consequences of sex – pregnancy – linking to her previous ideas about sex and child bearing being the predominant factor in marriage, rather than love.

Similar ideas are evident in the attitude of Mercutio, where he advises Romeo to sexually conquer other women to move on from Rosaline, shown in the quote “prick love for pricking”. Here, the image of a rose is used ironically; the image is traditionally affiliated with romantic love, highlighting Mercutio’s crudeness and the way in which he objectifies women. His views may derive from the fact that the women of Shakespeare’s day had very little ascendency and were viewed as beneath men in social hierarchy; they were considered property and often viewed as objects for men to sexually possess.

Ideas about erotic love are also explored in Sonnet 128, where Shakespeare describes the act of the ‘dark lady’ playing a virginal using many sexual innuendoes, implying his lust for her. ‘I envy those jacks that nimble leap, to kiss the tender inward of thy hand’ expresses his desire to physically possess his mistress, ‘the dark lady’; he is jealous that the keys get to touch his lady’s fingers, emphasizing his longing to be intimate with her. With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway’st’ demonstrates the soft way in which his mistress plays the virginal; the speaker is jealous of his mistress’ touching the instrument rather than him and fantasizes about kissing the woman in the same tender, controlling manner that she uses when playing.

The speaker’s desire to be physically intimate with his mistress is also highlighted in the quote ‘At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand! referencing how he ‘blushes’ at the key’s braveness in jumping up and touching the ‘dark lady’s’ hands. Alternatively, the ‘wood’s boldness could connote a man’s erection – thus illustrating the speaker’s sexual lust towards her. The image of a man’s erection is further suggested in the next line ‘To be so tickled, they would change their state’, however this line may also be referring to the speaker’s lips, which if were to be ‘tickled’ like those keys are, would gladly be transformed into wood and change places with the keys.

The use of imagery to represent the male genitalia can further be linked back to Mercutio when he taunts Romeo about Rosaline in the quote “Now will he sit under a medlar tree, and wish his mistress were that kind of fruit as maids call medlars”. A medlar is a small, round fruit with an apricot-like cleft that opens up when ripe and ready to eat; Mercutio equates this with the female genitalia, which remain closed until said lady is ready to ‘open up’, further highlighting his crudeness and how he reduces love to sex.

Mercutio says that Romeo wants to be around ‘medlars’ and that he wishes Rosaline was like a medlar (ripe and ready to ‘open up’), demonstrating his ideas about love, in relation to them being purely sexual. Mercutio furthers the sexual imagery with “open et caetera” (in Shakespearian English this refers to the ‘open’ female genitalia), and “poperin pear”, referring to the male genitalia, but also possibly sounding like “pop her in”; Mercutio wants Romeo to engage in sexual relations with Rosaline.

Structurally, this passage of speech highlights Romeo’s maturity and the difference in his perceptions of love, in comparison to Mercutio’s objectification of women. It features in Act 2 Scene 1, directly in between the scene in which Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love and the famous balcony scene, Act 2 Scene 2, in which their love is further developed. Mercutio’s use of crude language again emphasizes how lust in Romeo and Juliet is presented as being a form of infatuation, in comparison to a true, spiritual love.

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Shakespeare's Love in Romeo and Juliet and Sonnets. (2017, Oct 23). Retrieved from

Shakespeare's Love in Romeo and Juliet and Sonnets
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