Starting with this moment in the play (Act 2, Scene 2), how does Shakespeare present Romeo’s attitude to love?
This pivotal scene helps to develop the audience’s ideas about and reactions to the behaviour of the two main, tragic characters as their love for each other starts to emerge following their initial meeting at Capulet’s party in Act 1, Scene 5. Where the shared sonnet conveyed an unbridled, intimate passion and lack of control, this scene reveals varied layers to how love is portrayed by Shakespeare in the play, implying a steely determination at the heart of Romeo’s desire for Juliet.
Romeo is the essential opposite of a courtly lover when he first encounters Juliet. Up to that point, he languished in desperate, unrequited thoughts for Rosaline, his apparent lover, whom the audience never meets. One could even potentially question her very existence and opine that she is positioned merely as a conduit for his uncontrolled passion and ridiculous ideas about love. This is suggested in his early discussions with Benvolio when he complains about the lack of reciprocation from Rosaline. In return, Benvolio suggests that he stops feeling so desolate and unwanted and find out what he could be missing out on by attending the party, to which, symbolically, he is not invited.
This motif of Romeo as an intruder is cleverly refined by Shakespeare with the clause ‘bescreen’d in night’ which suggests that, at this moment, he is not permitted to express his true feelings for Juliet which, as she makes clear, must remain hidden from view, due to the illegitimacy of their burgeoning relationship. Juliet takes on the role of the sensible arbiter, referring to herself as ‘counsel’, implying that he needs sound advice to make the correct decision. At this stage, the audience is keenly aware of the fear of a potential reprisal against Romeo by the Capulets, especially Tybalt, who has made his hatred for Romeo patently clear mere moments before this scene takes place.
Shakespeare uses intimate and soft language, with repeated use of personal pronouns to enhance the palpable sense of intimacy between both young lovers – ‘I’, Thee’, ‘Thou’. This demonstrates that Romeo is prepared to take every risk to achieve his prize – he is foolish though because he is wilfully ignoring that such a relationship is politically unstable and would cause further rancour and conflict between the two rival families.
The audience is warned during The Prologue that they are ‘star-crossed lovers’, and this dramatic irony would have made a contemporary audience worried for the continuing safety of both characters. However, the tender nature of the exchanges between the two amply illustrates that Romeo’s attitude to his love for Juliet is sealed off, or above the harsh reality surrounding them both; he does or may not care because he is consumed by the moment, despite Juliet’s sensible response for him to stay back, stay away, not be caught up in this ongoing familial conflict.
Shakespeare exemplifies her more sensible approach through her warning him of the ‘high and hard to climb’ walls and that her balcony represents the ‘place death’, not love as he would want promised to him. She exhorts him to not be reckless in his manners and think more carefully before taking the next step.
Their intimacy is heightened still further and the intoxicating nature of this young relationship emphasised in the clause ‘yet not drunk a hundred words’ said by Juliet, which betrays somewhat her earlier insistence that he remain calm and not find himself in difficulty.
She continues to question him, almost scolding him with ‘how cams’t’ and the imperative ‘tell me’, wanting to know why he is taking such a risk. The audience is keenly aware about Paris discussing an arranged marriage with Capulet, the preferred and traditional option at the time, where marriage was a transaction not wholly based upon affection or suitability. Love then, for Romeo, is tantamount to an outright rebellion against the strictures of society.
When warned further, he reacts through ethereal language, referring to using ‘love’s light wings’ to ‘o’erperch these walls’, as if nothing could stand in their way provided the ideal of love is supporting him in this quest for perfection and union between them.
At the close of the extract, Shakespeare descends into romantic hyperbole, in the phrase ‘twenty of their swords’, implying that Romeo’s love alone can defeat any physical attack.
In the rest of the play, the audience is exposed to different types and kinds of love: platonic, brotherly-like love between Benvolio the peace-maker, almost the male equivalent of Juliet, who attempts to keep Romeo’s emotions in check in the early stages of the play. Thereafter, the paternal relationship between Romeo and Friar Laurence, as another source of confidence, allows Romeo to create an outlet for his desires whilst allowing him to keep his love a secret from the people of Verona and betrays his own faith and moral code to assist Romeo, where his own attitudes and morals have left him outside the strict societal codes.
Yet, despite his profligacy and unnatural behaviour, he still wants to cleave to tradition and is married to Juliet before the ultimate consummation of their marriage.