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Romeo and Juliet and the Sonnet of Love

By Kay Cook

“This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.”
—Sonnet 73

Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s best-known play and, after Hamlet, the most frequently performed. Although it is a tragedy of two young adolescents caught in the eddy of their own youthful passion, it is also a tragedy of two young people at the mercy of a feud not of their making and of fateful events over which they have no control. Regardless of our experience with this play, as first-time viewers, as seasoned Shakespeare festival attendees, as scholars and as critics, we have a common response of deep sadness over the senseless deaths of the two young lovers. Regardless of the cause of the tragic events, we are on their side.

There are several ways to think about Romeo and Juliet, but recent discussions of the play look at the form and language of love that Shakespeare uses and how his use of one particular form, the sonnet, enhances our sense of the play. By directing our attention to the sonnet qualities in Romeo and Juliet, we are able to discern a growing maturity in these two characters, one which, especially in the case of Juliet, belies their untried youth. This article will examine how the sonnet conventions found in Romeo and Juliet reflect the play’s stance on young love as well as how Juliet’s resistance to the sonnet reveals a character that allows her to endure the desertion of virtually everyone around her.

The sonnet is a fourteen-line love poem. Perfected by the Italian Petrarch in the fifteenth century, the form followed certain conventions. The subject matter was that of unrequited love. The sonneteer would write a cycle of sonnets dedicated to a woman, his “sonnet lady,” whom he knew only from afar, who was unavailable, whose very presence changed one’s earthly existence into heaven. The fourteen-line sequence was often marked by a reversal, a “turn” between the first eight and the last six lines. Frequently, the turn would move from the physical to the spiritual or from the outward contemplation of the woman to the inner anguish over her unavailability.

Shakespeare himself became a master of the sonnet, having written a total of 154. Like Petrarch, his subject matter was love, but Shakespeare was as innovative with the sonnet as he was with his plays. He wrote of the relationship between the intensity of love and its emphemerality, as in Sonnet 73, quoted above, and of the reality rather than the idealized version of the sonnet lady, as in Sonnet 130: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Clearly, then, his decision to evoke the sonnet and then actually to embed one within the action of Romeo and Juliet was a conscious one, intended to draw attention to the way those conventions were at work in the play.

Romeo and Juliet begins with a choral sonnet that announces the fate of the “two star-cross’d lovers” (prologue.6; all line numbers are from The Riverside Shakespeare [Boston: Houghton-Mifflin], 1974). After the opening scenes that establish the rowdiness and ribaldness of Verona’s youth, Romeo enters. He is in many ways a stark contrast to his companions, especially Mercutio, who have displayed all the energy and crassness associated with adolescent boys. Above all, Romeo is a Petrarchan lover languishing over the unattainable Rosaline: “O, she is rich in beauty, only poor / That, when she dies, with beauty dies her store . . . / She is too fair, too wise, wisely too fair / To merit bliss by making me despair / She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow / Do I live dead that live to tell it now” (1.1.215-216, 221-214).

The contrast of Romeo’s mood with his playful companions and their sexual punning is underscored by his speaking in rhymed couplets as opposed to the mostly free verse that characterizes this scene. Forswearing love and dragging himself to the Capulet ball, Romeo performs an emotional somersault on first viewing Juliet: “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it sight! / For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night” (1.5.52-53). Shakespeare proceeds to set their first encounter in the form and content of a sonnet (1.5.93-106) with two remarkable exceptions: the sonnet lady has a speaking voice, and, far from being the aloof and unattainable Petrarchan spirit, she reciprocates Romeo’s passion with her own. In fact, she playfully resists the conceit that compares pilgrims’ hands touching in prayer to lovers’ lips touching in kisses, while not, in fact, resisting the actual kisses that Romeo gives her.

Much has been made of Juliet’s role in this first encounter as well as her subsequent role in the famous balcony scene. In both scenes, states Evelyn Gajowski, “Juliet demands of [Romeo] active engagement” (The Art of Loving: Female Subjectivity and Male Discursive Traditions in Shakespeare’s Tragedies [Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992], 33). Quoting Jill Levenson, Gajowski also points out that these scenes mark “the male protagonist’s movement beyond the confines of tradition and his quest into unknown psychological terrain, freed of convention” (32).

Playful and actively involved in the “pilgrim” encounter, Juliet next counters Romeo’s Petrarchan hyperboles with practicality in the balcony scene. Her pointed questions, for example when she asks him “by whose direction foundst thou out this place” (2.2.79), are met with rhapsodic responses: “By love, that first did prompt me to inquire” (2.2.80). But Juliet’s directness wins out as she makes the marriage proposal that requires him turn his Petrarchan rhapsodies into action: “If that thy bent of love be honorable, / Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow” (2.2.143-44). Discussing the numerous allusions to falconry in the play (see 2.2.177, for example), Carolyn E. Brown argues that Juliet plays the falconer in her taming of the falcon, Romeo, by ridding him of his “Petrarchanism” (“Juliet’s Taming of Romeo,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 36:333).

Much has also been made in the play itself and by Shakespeare scholars concerning Juliet’s age; she is not yet fourteen. Current criticism suggests that although Lady Capulet herself was married and had borne her child by the time she was Juliet’s age, Elizabethan women actually married at a much later age, usually between twenty-five and thirty (J. Karl Franson, “Too Soon Marr’d: Juliet’s Age as Symbol in Romeo and Juliet," Papers on Language & Literature 3, Summer 1996, 245).

Because the age references recur throughout the course of the play, it is clear that we are intended to take notice of her youth, especially when her father suggests to Paris that she is too young: “Let two more summers wither in their pride, / Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride” (1.2.10-11).

Perhaps it is to make a greater contrast with the world of the adults that Shakespeare places practicality and true passion in the words of a thirteen-year-old. The adults in the play demand that the children live through them. One by one, they abandon Juliet until she is left to her own resources and to the vial of the untested drug given her by Friar Laurence: Romeo, of course, is exiled for his killing of Tybalt; because of her refusal to marry Paris, her parents threaten to disown her and, worse, tell her they wish she were dead; the nurse counsels her to commit bigamy since “Romeo’s a dishclout compared to [Paris]” (3.5.219); and Friar Laurence, rather than admit to the marriage that he performed in hopes of reconciling the two houses, comes up with an elaborate scheme that places Juliet in profound physical and mental danger, a fact that she herself realizes. Further, the friar’s fright at voices approaching the tomb causes him to abandon Juliet in the tomb of her dead ancestors with the body of Romeo. Throughout the chaos that occurs when the tragedy in the tomb is discovered by the outside world, Juliet remains firm and resolute, a stark contrast to the confusion that even spills into the streets of Verona: “For I will not away” (5.3.160). Preferring death to the hostile world around her, she stabs herself with Romeo’s dagger.

Although we see the chastened adults receive their greatest punishment, the deaths of their children, it seems far too great a price to pay for the settling of a feud. Our hearts remain with Romeo and Juliet, who found passion in love rather than in hatred and who matured far beyond their adult role models.

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