Are Romeo and Juliet really in love?

Today, we say something is like Romeo and Juliet to describe a love that surpasses all boundaries, but a close reading of the play suggests the lovers’ feelings are more complicated than pure love. If we look, we can find plenty of evidence that Romeo and Juliet’s love for one another is, at least initially, immature. Romeo begins the play claiming to be passionately in love with another woman, Rosaline. When he sees Juliet, he abandons Rosaline before he has even spoken to his new love, which suggests that his feelings for both women are superficial. Juliet, meanwhile, seems to be motivated by defying her parents. She is unenthusiastic about her parents’ choice of husband for her, and at the party where she is supposed to meet Paris, she instead kisses Romeo after exchanging just fourteen lines of dialogue with him. When Romeo returns to see Juliet, she is focused on marriage. For Juliet, part of the appeal of marriage is that it will free her from her parents: “I’ll no longer be a Capulet” (2.2.). She compares Romeo to a tame falcon—a “tassel-gentle” (2.2.)—which suggests that she believes she can control him. Juliet’s love for Romeo seems at least in part to be a desire to be freed from her parents’ control by a husband who can’t control her either.

More experienced characters argue that sexual frustration, not enduring love, is the root cause of Romeo and Juliet’s passion for one another. Mercutio tells Romeo “this drivelling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole” (2.4.). Every time Romeo tries to demonstrate the seriousness of his love, Mercutio undermines him with sexual jokes. When Romeo risks returning to the Capulets’ house to see Juliet again, Mercutio calls after him that he is just sexually frustrated: “O that she were / An open-arse, thou a poperin pear!” (2.1.). The Nurse points out the sexual element of Juliet’s love. When she returns from meeting Romeo for the first time, the Nurse describes him in physical terms: “for a hand and a foot and body, though they be not to be talked on, yet they are past compare” (2.5.). Later, when Romeo is banished, the Nurse suggests that Juliet will be happier with Paris, because he is better looking: “An eagle, madam / Hath not so green, so quick, so fair an eye / As Paris hath” (3.5.).

Yet, while the two characters may have initially fallen for each other due to a mixture of convenience and lust, Romeo and Juliet’s language shows their passion maturing into real love. In the opening scenes, Romeo makes Benvolio and Mercutio laugh with his clichés about love. When he sees Juliet, the clichés drop away, and he begins to describe his feelings in original terms. When they are together, Romeo and Juliet create a shared vocabulary. In their first meeting, they compose a sonnet together using the religious language of pilgrimage. They both start using astrological language to describe their love. As their relationship develops, they use less rhyme, which has the effect of making their language feel less artificial. These changes in the lovers’ language show that they are growing together. In their final scene before they part for good, Romeo and Juliet are on the brink of talking about something other than their thwarted love (“Let’s talk” (3.5.)) before being prevented from having their first real conversation by Romeo’s banishment. The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is that the lovers never get the chance to see if their love will grow into a mature, enduring relationship.

Read about another pair of lovers in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.