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Romeo and Juliet: True Love?

Love is defined in many ways. For most people, it brings to mind images of infatuation and commitment; to some, this image is attractive, and to others, repulsive. Love is not only about romance, however; there is also love between friends, familial love: the list goes on. Humans crave love. Therefore, we obsess over it. We dissect it, we romanticize it, and we ponder its meaning.

It’s no wonder, then, that some of the most well-known and powerful tales involve love, most notably romantic love. Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, is one of those stories. It is also among the most famous, perhaps because of its implications that love is so overarching that it surpasses death and has no awareness and/or concern for possible barriers. This can also be described as being incredibly shortsighted.

One question with which people struggle is about love’s authenticity. Is it love, or is it not? And how do I know? Margaret Anderson mused that “In real love you want the other person’s good. In romantic love, you want the other person.” So is Shakespeare’s most famous play about real, authentic love, or romantic love? In this famous tale, Romeo is portrayed as impetuous and fickle in his attentions, while Juliet is not. Though she didn’t wish ill on her lover, the authenticity of her love was limited by her inexperience, young age, vulnerability, and inclination to focus on her physical attraction with Romeo.

In the play, Juliet is very young, and it is likely that this first meeting with Romeo is also her first brush with romance. Romance was not a primary concern in Elizabethan society, at least not until after a marital match was made. In the story, Paris intends to marry Juliet. As she is not yet married, Juliet has probably not experienced this type of affection until Romeo woos her. This makes her easily affected and predisposed to flattery. She protests Romeo’s bold declarations in Act 2: “In truth, fair Montague, I am too fond, / And therefore thou mayst think my havior light. [ . . . ] I should have been more strange, I must confess . . . ” (Shakespeare 2.2.103-104, 107). It’s clear that she was immediately taken by him and loathed to conf ess it, and yet she was caught unprepared, having not yet sorted through her own thoughts. By the end of the night, Romeo weasels out a declaration of her love for him only by the social codes of their society and the fateful luck of his eavesdropping.

Being a teen, Juliet inevitably falls prey to her raging emotions and hormones. Modern-day high school romances rarely pan out well in the real world, if only because the individual undergoes a certain amount of change when they’re exposed to harsh realities. Even if Romeo and Juliet had not died, their marriage would have been much harder than each expected. Their “love” progresses so quickly in the play that they barely have time to learn about each other. Hardly do they talk except to rave about their undying love; for instance, Romeo continually dodges Juliet’s attempts at practicality, saying instead that “With love’s light wings did I o’erperch these walls,” (Shakespeare 2.2.71). If asked, neither would know the other’s disposition towards children, for example. Therefore, their attraction is mostly physical.

In the 1960s portrayal of Romeo and Juliet, the two characters are barely able to stay away from each other, much less have a proper conversation without yielding to physical affection. Much of their time together is spent hugging, kissing, and practicing oblivion to the world around them. Romeo drones on about Juliet’s beauty in multiple scenes, reflecting that “The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
. . . ” (Shakespeare 2.2.19-20) and “ . . . Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear” (1.5.54). We know that this is not the first time he has used these descriptive phrases; for Rosaline, he claimed the same, and yet Juliet is ignorant of his fickle affections and charmed by his eloquently-phrased declarations.

By the time of Romeo’s banishment, both lovers are emotionally invested. Though Romeo has already shown that he is tragically nearsighted in his vengeful duel with Tybalt, Juliet demonstrates the practical concern for his safety. At first she is heartbroken, confused, upset, and regretful about what has happened, but after their night together, she urges Romeo to go, hastily demanding, “Hie hence, begone, away!” (Shakespeare 3.5.26) among his many protestations. This is a rare demonstration of prudence on her part, showing that she is not entirely blinded by her amorousness and places his safety at a high standard (above their time together). This is a glimpse of true love, according to Anderson’s quote.

And yet soon after, Juliet subsides into sobs and blatantly refuses to marry Paris, which is more than a little conspicuous given their situation. She cries to Friar Lawrence, seeking a way to alleviate their predicament and assuring him that she will go to any lengths to be with Romeo. This, in itself, is a red flag: that she would risk grave danger to both their lives for the simple joy of company. She thinks not of her family, and nothing of the other loves in her life, demanding, “Give me, give me! O, tell not me of fear!” (Shakespeare 4.1.123). Her one concern is being with Romeo.

Then, when events take a tragic turn and she finds Romeo, dead of his own tragic flaw, passionate impetuousness, Juliet indulges in this mistake herself and commits suicide. Once again, she thinks only of her “need” to be with him and not of the effects on the others who closely share her life. She is blinded by her single-minded love for this fickle boy who loved another only hours before.

In this respect, romantic love can never be true love. There will always be some degree of impetuousness and recklessness involved, because this kind of attraction is tied to physical interaction. Romeo and Juliet experienced intense physical attraction, but the unfortunate truth about loves like theirs is that the flames burn themselves out more quickly.

On the flip side, companionate love is slow and steady. Friends and family tend to concern themselves with what’s best for each other, rather than turning a narrow focus on the pleasure of their company. This is true love.

Romeo and Juliet’s situation was unreal, though it happens often in today’s world. Assisted by the media, lovers can become blinded by the initial physical attraction and evolution’s tools, but love is only authentic when the individuals want what’s best for each other. This love is supportive love. It’s authentic. It’s real. It’s the kind we all shoot for, because “That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet” (Shakespeare 2.2.45-46).



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