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Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University explains the themes in William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet | Themes


Shakespeare is a master at weaving themes in his plays. In Romeo and Juliet, he uses complex figurative language (metaphors, similes, personification); imagery; symbolism and motifs, or recurring concepts; and the plot's structure to construct meaning for the audience. All of the literary elements used in the play are intricately bound together. Every action and word taken or spoken by each character, even minor ones, serves to support Shakespeare's themes.

Love and Marriage

The play explores love in multiple forms, including romantic and familial. Love propels every action in the plot that is not motivated by its opposite: hatred. For love, Romeo and Juliet defy authority, disrupt convention, and reject their family roles. The hatred between Romeo's and Juliet's families is the strongest barrier to their love. This serves to illustrate the central idea in the play: love dragged down by hatred cannot last. For example, Romeo's love of Juliet leads to Mercutio's death and Tybalt's murder. The friar's appreciation of Romeo and Juliet's love, and the value he places on it, leads to his reckless plans, which result in the young lovers' deaths. The friar's love for Romeo and Juliet is not powerful enough to overcome the hatred embodied in the war between the families.

Shakespeare's use of imagery, coming most often through dialogue between Romeo and Juliet, fortifies the idea that love bearing the burden of hate cannot thrive. Before Romeo meets Juliet at the Capulet's party, he is already heavy-spirited and weighed down by an unreturned love with "much to do with hate." Romeo tells Mercutio he is too sad to "soar with his [Cupid's] light feathers." The image of love carried on wings is sustained as Romeo secretly watches Juliet at her bedroom window and refers to her as an "angel" and a "winged messenger." When Juliet asks him how he was able to climb over the high wall, Romeo says, "With love's light wings did I o'erperch these walls." In Act 3, Scene 2, after Romeo and Juliet are married but before they have consummated their wedding, Juliet says, "Come, thou day in night,/For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night/Whiter than new snow upon a raven's back."

But a winged being with a heavy burden cannot fly. Dragged down by hatred, Romeo and Juliet cannot live for long as married lovers, but their love does transform their characters. They both mature from children to adults by becoming husband and wife, by consummating their marriage, and by trying to take control of their destinies. Through the characters of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare exalts the power of love, but he also points out that, without the blessing of authority, love is unsustainable.


Violence drives the plot of Romeo and Juliet with as much, or perhaps more, force as love. The violence explodes in verbal threats, such as Sampson's in the opening scene, Tybalt's rage when a Montague dares to crash a Capulet party, and the physical fights that occur throughout the play. It also takes the form of self-harm, as the two lovers commit suicide. The play consistently demonstrates the harm caused by violent responses to problems. In addition, almost every instance of violence is accompanied by lewd references to sex; the more violent the situation, the more base the conversation. The exception to this rule comes when Capulet loses his temper on Juliet after she refuses to marry Paris. Capulet is angered almost to the point of violence, but Shakespeare preserves the righteousness of fatherly love despite Capulet's severity with his daughter.

Shakespeare uses characterization to make it clear that violent emotions are as dangerous as violent deeds. In Act 2, Scene 4, Mercutio and Benvolio speak about Tybalt, who has challenged Romeo to a duel. As much as Romeo's friends show true loyalty and love for him, Benvolio and Mercutio can barely contain their excitement over the prospect of a fight, knowing it could lead to Romeo's death. They make fun of Romeo; referring to Romeo's depression over Rosaline, Mercutio says of his friend, "He's already dead!" In the same conversation, Mercutio and Benvolio divulge background information about the character of Tybalt, and the audience finds out that he has a significant reputation for swordsmanship and fighting. Later, through an argument between Mercutio and Benvolio, the audience learns how easily their anger can trigger violence.

Prejudice and a lack of communication play a strong role in causing violence. Throughout the play members of the Capulet and Montague households assume the worst of their counterparts in the other family. Tybalt assumes that Romeo came disguised to the party to mock his family. Mercutio assumes that Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt because of weakness. Paris assumes that Romeo has come to the Capulet crypt to desecrate the bodies. In each case preconceived ideas motivate the character to respond aggressively. This emphasizes that the failure to communicate openly can be fatal.


Shakespeare builds the theme of authority by showing how each character wields his or her power over others.

The prince, representing the ideas of justice and law, has the highest level of authority over the other characters. His words are the voice of reason. He is never swayed by emotion, even when his own kinsman, Mercutio, is killed. He recognizes the truth about violence. He says that rage is "pernicious" and weapons are "mistempered," or made for evil purposes, and he works for peace. He judges fairly and banishes Romeo instead of sentencing him to death. At the end of the play, the prince issues the final proclamation about the friar's innocence, setting the law above religious authority.

Friar Lawrence represents religious authority. As a spiritual counselor, he is the voice of wisdom. He encourages Romeo to be moderate in love and to see blessings when Romeo sees only the negative in his situation. The friar delivers a core message: humankind is both good and evil, and "where the worser is predominant," it will destroy the individual. The friar is manipulated by fate, and through his actions he gives fate the power to doom the lovers. This happens because the friar tries to step outside the boundaries of his religious authority. He is not content to be only a spiritual source of guidance to Romeo and Juliet. He tampers with their lives and tries to carve a path for them, concocting lies and schemes to thwart secular customs. He helps Romeo sneak around the law of banishment, and he helps Juliet outwit her family and fake her death. For violating these boundaries, he bears a part in the young lovers' demise. Shakespeare does not choose for him to be condemned by the law, implying that religious authority is not as definitive as the other types of authority in the play.

Lord Capulet wields social and parental authority, though he allows his decisions to be influenced by Paris. In Act 1, Scene 1, he tells Paris that Juliet is too young to be married, but Paris argues with him and changes his mind. Later in the play, Lord Capulet says Juliet is too much in mourning over the death of Tybalt to be married, and again, Paris's presence changes Lord Capulet's mind. Every time Juliet rebels against her parents, her emotional state mirrors the mental state her father was in before he was influenced by Paris. This implies that Paris has emotional, political, or social authority over Lord Capulet, who, in choosing to yield to Paris's authority, forfeits his parental authority. If it were not for Paris, who represents social pressures, Lord Capulet would be a doting, compassionate father.

In counterpoint to these characters, neither Romeo nor Juliet wants power over the other. In fact, each one seeks to give the other authority. It has no place in their loving relationship.

Youth and Age

Much of the tension in the drama stems from clashes between the dispositions of young characters versus the expectations of older ones. Even though the older characters are tempered versions of the younger characters, they show evidence of possessing the same passions they consistently urge the young to overcome. Lord Capulet and Tybalt's rage at the masquerade ball are similar, yet Lord Capulet calls Tybalt a "saucy boy," seeming to forget that he reached for a sword himself when he saw Montague earlier that day.

Juliet and the older nurse's relationship mirrors the one between Romeo and the older friar. Juliet and the nurse are alike in nature, both romantic and enthusiastic about love. However, the nurse is more practical, likely through experience, something she cannot give to Juliet. When she advises Juliet to marry Paris after Romeo is banished, they clash. The friar and Romeo are alike in nature, both poetic and lofty. The friar berates Romeo in Act 2, Scene 3, telling him that confusion creates more confusion: "riddling confession finds but riddling shift." Yet the friar never considers speaking the truth as a resolution to any of Romeo and Juliet's problems. It is as if he expects Romeo to be wiser than himself.


Before Juliet meets Romeo, her identity is not called into question. She is comfortable performing the expectations required of her in the roles of daughter and Capulet family member, hoping neither for a marriage nor a change of identity. Because she has never had to define herself, she sheds her old identity easily after meeting Romeo. The audience understands this when she says, "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."

In the play's beginning, Romeo is seeking a relationship with Rosaline. When that fails he loses his sense of self. Romeo regains his identity through love for Juliet. Shakespeare contrasts Romeo's qualities and pursuits against the dispositions of his friends, Mercutio and Benvolio, and his enemy, Tybalt. Unlike these characters Romeo does not actively engage in the old prejudices and hatred between the Montagues and Capulets. Romeo strikes out for the Capulet party, not to embrace his role as a Montague but as a means of shedding the past and stepping into manhood. Tragically, the characters who are still under the influence of the feud prevent him from growing into his new identity as Juliet's husband.

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