William Shakespeare’s famed and celebrated opus Romeo and Juliet, an amalgam of many works of poetry or prose from Italy, with a lineage that dates all the way towards Ovid’s Metamorphoseon, is considered one of the English language’s greatest and most influential texts. Pondered over and studied for nearly half a millennium, the play is a treasure trove – the text frothing and spilling over with insights into the mind of the Bard and of the times in which he lived, or rather the ideals of the times in which he lived. Just below the surface of its pages are commentaries on youth, romanticism, realism and the struggles of each in regard to the others. Shakespeare lays out all of his ideas within his poetry and in the words of his timeless characters. There are two characters in particular that exemplify both romantic love and anti-romantic love – romanticism and realism, respectively. Furthermore, the struggles between the ideas within the text are revealed through clear contrast and binary opposition.
As told by Ovid: Pyramus and Thisbe lived in ancient Babylon, with parents that refused to let them see each other – eventually they eloped in secret from their parents but due to a misunderstanding and a jumping of conclusions by Pyramus, he slays himself with his own blade leading Thisbe to find him near-death, asking him to wait for her and running herself through with the same blade – the young lovers die together, embracing. Apart from run in with a lioness (which leads to the misunderstanding) the vital and most primal plot points remain the same in Romeo and Juliet. Young lovers are denied each other by family and elope, Pyramus/Romeo believes Thisbe/Juliet dead but she yet lives, Pyramus/Romeo commits suicide in his all-consuming grief only for Thisbe/Juliet to find him dying and kill herself with his blade to join him in the afterlife. Many other authors either made reference to this tale or added to the final tragedy by Shakespeare, among them were Greek writer Xenophone who told a similar tale, and Dante Alighieri who mentions the Montagues and Capulets in Purgatorio, the sequel to his famous work, Inferno.
When Shakespeare penned this tale of young, brash and doomed lovers he went on to add characters and themes from other works of fiction or even from history to expand the narrative from its simple and ancient origins and gave the tale a particular renaissance.
If Romeo exemplifies one who sees love romantically as a mystical force, tantamount to destiny, that binds people together for life – then Mercutio, his cynical friend, represents how foolish this notion is. Mercutio believes that love, especially in young lovers, is purely physical and mocks Romeo for his infatuation with Rosaline and his brooding over love. Especially seen in Act 1, Scene 4 when Romeo uses a metaphor of a rose with thorns to describe his relationship with Rosaline – to which Mercutio jests “If love be rough with you, be rough with love; Prick love for pricking and you beat love down”. Mercutio has a very modern view of love, that love is something that isn’t supposed to be feared – be confident and you can conquer love.
Throughout the play, Mercutio is more of a voice of reason than both the expected voices of reason, Juliet’s Nurse and Friar Laurence, whom both have ulterior motives for having Romeo and Juliet marry. The Friar wishes to end the family feud and the Nurse (while having similar views to Mercutio about love) is easily swayed by Juliet as she is desperately loyal to her lady. If Romeo had heeded Mercutio in the first place then perhaps the play would have ended as a comedy.
Romeo doesn’t heed his friend, however, through his rash actions (proposing to Juliet the night they meet) it can be seen that he truly believes that Juliet was forged from the dust of stars and bound to him by crimson string to be his lover – his wife. So quick is he to prove his mortal love for Juliet that when news arrives that she has died, he purchases poison and rushes to die by her side to preserve his idea of romantic love.
Shakespeare declares the point that romantic love is naught but a fantasy through the tragedy that Romeo and Juliet hurl themselves into – young lovers beware, rushing into love only leads to heartbreak and pain. Shakespeare includes Romeo’s prior non-physical relationship with Rosaline as further proof, as Friar Laurence says “…what a change is here! Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear, so soon forsaken?” He goes on to say, as if from Shakespeare’s own mouth, “Then young men’s love then lies, not truly in their hearts but in their eyes”.
A binary opposition is a system in which two related but antonymous concepts are placed together and it is used to better understand either concept through their contrast. Shakespeare loved contrast and he used it freely in the play – right in the opening monologue he uses oxymorons like “civil blood” (blood is a primal substance often linked to barbarism and the uncouth) and “fatal loins” which creates the imagery of a person born to die. His use of contrast is all-throughout and very apparent. He uses it to explain his ideas further. In scene 3.2, lines 73 – 74, Juliet says “O’ serpent heart hid with flow’ring face!” Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave when told that Romeo has murdered Tybalt? Caves kept by dragons are not fair and Shakespeare is having Juliet say that Romeo is traitorous and hides his true nature behind his words, and this in-turn is in contrast to scene 3.5, in which Romeo and Juliet awake from spending the night together – Juliet seemingly forgetting that Romeo had just in the eve previous killed her kinsman. This contrast, further highlighted by the proximity of events, shows that Shakespeare wishes to poke fun of Juliet (and young lovers) – she doesn’t really care, she only craves carnally for Romeo. Young women’s love also exists not within their hearts, it seems. Perhaps this contrast can even go as far as to say that romantic love is but a silken veil to hide the sticky and animal nuances of lust.
In the last scene of the play, Shakespeare uses binary opposition in his language wildly. Juliet, in her grief and yearning to die begins to see death as positive and life as negative – she refers to poison as a “friendly drop” and the blade that ends her life as a “happy dagger”. She wishes to join Romeo in death (or maybe wishes to escape her fate of marrying someone she doesn’t want to marry in Paris). Shakespeare turns the tables on life and at the same time says that non-romantic love is positive and romantic love is negative (roles which are traditionally reversed.)
Romeo and Juliet, at face value, is a romance but look just beyond and you discover a commentary on the young and how their foolish and rushed decisions can lead into horrible, life-ending consequences. Through differing roles with Romeo and Mercutio, Shakespeare expresses two distinct viewpoints – but it is Romeo’s viewpoint and subsequent actions that lead both of them to their deaths. Furthermore, with binary opposition Shakespeare shows his commentary on young love and how it is more physical than anything else, and finally through the contrast of life and death, in the final scene, the Bard solidifies his viewpoints – that romantic love is a fancy for the young, and if real love does indeed exist it is found in people like Mercutio – who understand themselves and the world they live in.