Concepts of love in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Term Paper, 2001

17 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2.a. Courtly Love
2.b. Romeo - the Petrarchan lover

3.a. Worldly Love
3.b. Juliet: " I love thy company."

4.a. The traditional position
4.b. Capulet - the old-style father

5.a. The new way
5.b. Friar Laurence - the Protestant monk

6.a. The timeless concept of love as sex
6.b. The Nurse: "Women grow by men."



1. Introduction

Why was Shakespeare so successful in his times? How come, his plays drew the masses into the theatres? How did he manage to attract all these different groups of people with different backgrounds at the same time? These are the questions I will have in the back of my mind while writing this paper. I will examine one aspect of his style more closely, which I found in his Romeo and Juliet. In doing so, I hope to give at least some small explanation of the reason of his overwhelming success.

It was probably in 1595 when Shakespeare wrote this famous tragedy. He was doing so, living in a society which was leaving the Middle Ages far behind and rapidly growing in complexity. The English society was splitting up into a huge variety of different groups and organisations. The Reformation produced a wealth of new religious groupings. Especially the Puritans were to become very influential in England. The rise of the middle class was taking place under the reign of queen Elizabeth, which was combining artisans, merchants and the more prosperous peasants and was accumulating new resources and capital. The aristocracy was changing: It was opening up for new members, mostly wholesalers who had earned a fortune with the profitable overseas trade. The decline of the ancient system of feudalism was highly advanced, which for the common peasant meant that he wasn't tied to his small piece of soil any longer. He was much more mobile now. Family structures were changing as well. The kin (that is the enlarged family) as the main organising factor was beginning to lose ground to the smaller nuclear family.

The existence and development of these new groups and structures brought about the emergence of various new ideas about crucial things in life. Love (and with it marriage) surely is one of these important issues and it is the one my paper will be concerned with. In Shakespeare's times there was a juxtaposition of numerous very different concepts of love (it is exclusively relationships between man and woman I mean in this context). The rise of individualism and of the nuclear family fostered the idea that mutual feelings are important in the choice of the partner. Especially the Puritans stressed the supreme value of affectionate and, at the same time, stable relationships within marriage. This was in contrast to the traditional position that hold that, as regards the choice of the future spouse, emotions have to be totally subordinated to rational factors. Among the poets, the centuries-old approach to love, which was the Courtly Love - model, was no longer the only possible guideline for their works. It was (among other things) the rise of humanism that caused many of them to leave the old idealistic concepts of chivalry behind, emphasising now the individualism and equality of the lovers.1

Shakespeare was a member of this society. He was confronted with all these different attitudes and ways of life. My thesis is that the way he deals with the ideas of his surroundings is one of the most important secrets of his success. Shakespeare observes his contemporaries, picks their ideas up and skilfully incorporates them in his plays. There is a little bit for everyone in them. He manages to address every single member of the audience. Thus, Romeo and Juliet is not only a play about the greatest love-story in history but also about many different concepts of love. There is an abundance of characters in it who have completely different ideas of what love and marriage should be like. And even the individual characters themselves are sometimes not very consistent in their attitude.

Below, I want to introduce some of these concepts as they existed in the Elizabethan age in more detail, and I will try to find traces of them in the characters of Romeo and Juliet.

2.a. Courtly Love

The idea of Courtly Love is a relic 2 from the Middle Ages, but it was still influential in Shakespeare's times. It belonged to the way of living among the court nobility and it dominated the contemporary love poetry.3

Courtly Love is about the deep and emotional love of a gentleman towards a lady. This lady is of such a beauty and pureness of heart and mind that she becomes an image of love itself. Thus, she becomes unreachable, an object of adoration. As Keeble puts it:

"It is an elaborate, exaggerated ideal, almost a religion of love."4

The lover is in love with love, rather than with the lady. His great aim is to reach the union with this absolute love, which is represented by the beloved. In order to achieve this he has to purify himself and takes rejection and hardships of all different kinds upon himself. But there is no room for this final union in this life. It can only be enjoyed in the next world.5

The poems about Sir Lancelot's love towards queen Guinevere and the Tristan and Isolde - story are representatives of this concept in the medieval literature.6 In connection with this concept there is a particular style of writing: the Petrarchan style. Francesco Petrarch (1304- 74) was an Italian poet who established literary conventions of how to behave and how to talk when in love. In the Elizabethan love poetry we meet imitations of his model over and over again.

It is a very artificial way in which the characters express their feelings. They use complex images and rhetorical phrases in order to reflect the complexity and the burden they have to bear as a result of this way of loving. Two devices frequently used is the conceit - that is witted play on words and meaning - and the oxymoron - the connection of two terms normally incompatible.7

2.b. Romeo - the Petrarchan lover

Romeo is a very complex character. During the plot he changes his mind as to which maid he loves. At the same time, also his concept of love changes from the traditional Courtly Love towards a more modern approach (which I will examine in the chapter below). Looking at the way he loves his first love, Rosaline, it is clear that he cherishes the conventional idealising attitude towards love.8 I want to have a look at this particular episode of his, especially at the way he expresses his feelings, and take him as Shakespeare's representative of this concept. Leimberg puts it very well:

"...Romeo ... kleidet die Spuren seines Bekenntnisses in stehende Formeln antiquierter Liebeslyrik ein..."9

In order to explain the complex and despairing nature of his love to his friend Benvolio, he uses the figure of an oxymoron and dwells in wild antitheses:

"O heavy lightness, serious vanity , Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms! Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health, Still-waking sleep that is not what it is!" (1,1,177-180)

In the second scene Benvolio calls Rosaline's beauty into question:

Benvolio: "Compare her face with some that I shall show And I will make thee think thy swan a crow."

Romeo: "When the devout religion of mine eye Maintains such falsehood, then turn tears to fire, And these who, often drown`d, could never die, Transparent heretics, be burnt for liars. One fairer than my love! The all-seeing sun Ne'er saw her match since the world begun." (1,2,88-95)

This time Romeo defends himself by using a conceit. He makes use of religious terms, of the elements water and fire, and of the sun in order to underline the overwhelming power of his love.

But although he uses such ingenious imagery we don't get to know Rosaline better. We don't even know what she really looks like. She leads a shadowy existence. Romeo's love for her remains abstract. He worships an image rather than an individual.

"He is a very young man playing love games."10

Romeo's best friend Mercutio recognises this and associates him with the Courtly Love - model:

"Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in." (2,4,39-40).


1 For further reading: Morton, A. L.: A People's History of England. London 1938; and Stone, L.: The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. London 1977.

2 I adopted the terms Courtly Love and Worldly Love from Weiß, W.: Das Drama der Shakespeare-Zeit. Stuttgart, 1979.

3 See Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage; 180.

4 Keeble, N.H.: Notes on Romeo and Juliet. Oxford 1980; 78.

5 See Weiß, Drama; 158-159.

6 See Lerner, L.: Love and Marriage: Literature and its Social Context. London 1979; 1-4, 11-14.

7 In more detail: Reclam, P. (ed.): Interpretationen: Shakespeares Dramen. Stuttgart 2000; 112-120.

8 This is not to say that with loving Juliet he has suddenly become a totally different man. Rather, his meeting Juliet sets the ball rolling slowly away from Courtly Love. Romeo's change is described in eg: Keeble, Romeo and Juliet; 78-80.

9 Leimberg, I.: Shakespeares Romeo und Julia. München 1968; 132.

10 Keeble, Romeo and Juliet; 79.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Concepts of love in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet
Bielefeld University
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Thomas Eger (Author), 2001, Concepts of love in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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