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Romeo and Juliet Themes

Welcome to another GCSE English Literature revision guide from Tutor In. You will find everything you need to know about Romeo and Juliet themes. Find out how Shakespeare presents the themes and learn some key quotations. Your exam will ask you about either a theme or a character, so we need to focus on these areas to make sure our revision is efficient and effective. Make sure you’re confident in explaining how Shakespeare presents the themes in this guide and then learn about the characters. Learn some key quotations for each theme and character and practise plenty of exam style questions to complete your revision – it’s not rocket science, just focus on what rewards you with marks form the examiner.

You’ll notice that many of the quotations shown in this guide can cover multiple themes and characters. This is a good way to work efficiently. Memorise quotations that you can apply to a number of different questions to limit how many quotations you actually have to learn (which I’m sure you’ll agree is good news!)

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Now let’s get stuck into these Romeo and Juliet themes…

Love

How the theme is presented

  • It’s not a spoiler to say that love underpins most of the plot.
  • Shakespeare explores the positive aspects of love, as well as the difficulties when different relationships are incompatible. 
  • We see the difference in how the older and younger generations approach love. Romeo and Juliet immediately have an all-encompassing love for each other. It’s by far the most important thing in their lives and they’re willing to give up everything for it. At different points the older generation, particularly Capulet, try to control romantic love and orchestrate Juliet’s relationship with Paris.  
  • The audience sees an obsessive love from Romeo. He’s initially madly in love with Rosaline, but she doesn’t feel the same. He then quickly switches affections to Juliet. An even greater obsession then begins.  
  • Shakespeare shows the power of traditional romantic love to shape Romeo and Juliet’s lives and lead to tragedy. On the other hand, Shakespeare shows the healing power of love as Romeo and Juliet’s death forces an end to hostilities between Montague and Capulet. 
  • Shakespeare also explores other types of love. He presents: the bond between friends with Romeo and Mercutio; family ties, particularly when Romeo declares his love even for Tybalt; and caring relationships like Romeo with the Friar and Juliet with the Nurse. 
  • It’s important to understand the historical context around every theme. In Shakespearean times people tended to get married at a much younger age than today. It was normal at the time to be married by the age of 13. Parents would also usually choose the spouse for their child. They’d look to secure a match to a rich, important family. It is, therefore, very difficult for Romeo and Juliet to decide who they want to marry, especially when they’re choosing someone from an enemy family.  

Key Quotations

  • Romeo: ‘Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love. Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!’ 
  • Mercutio: ‘If love be rough with you, be rough with love; prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.’ 
  • Romeo: ‘Is she a Capulet? O, dear account! My life is my foe’s debt’ 
  • Juliet: ‘My only love sprung from my only hate! Too early seen unknown, and known too late! Prodigious birth of love it is to me, that I must love a loathed enemy.’ 
  • Romeo: ‘But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun…It is my lady, O it is my love! O, that she knew she were!’ 
  • Juliet: ‘O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.’ 
  • Juliet: ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ 
  • Friar Laurence: ‘Young men’s love then lies not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.’
  • Juliet: ‘Romeo, I come! This do I drink to thee.’
  • Capulet: ‘O brother Montague, give me thy hand’ 
  • Prince: ‘For never was a story of more woe that this of Juliet and her Romeo.’ 

Fate

How the theme is presented

  • Fate has a very interesting role in Romeo and Juliet. Various characters refer to fate guiding their lives. 
  • The audience gets a clear sense of fate’s influence right from the start. The prologue tells us exactly what’s going to happen in the play. It’s as if fate has decided how Romeo and Juliet’s lives will play out. 
  • The words “pair of star-cross’d lovers” and “death-mark’d love” emphasise this idea that Romeo and Juliet’s love is ill-fated and doomed from the start. 
  • Again, thinking about context, many people in 16th and 17th centuries believed that astrology played some part in setting the course of their lives. So this idea of “star cross’d lovers” would seem realistic to a contemporary audience. 
  • This prologue creates a major sense of dramatic irony throughout the play. Remember dramatic irony is where the audience knows something that hasn’t yet happened or that the characters on stage are not aware of yet. 
  • When we get to the tragic end of the play Romeo refers again to the stars. The suggestion here is that he and Juliet never stood a chance in their love. Fate and the stars had pre-determined the tragic end of their love. 

Key Quotations

  • Chorus: ‘A pair of star-crossed lovers take their lives’ (Prologue)
  • Juliet: ‘My grave is like to be my wedding bed.’
  • Romeo: ‘O, I am fortune’s fool!’ 
  • Prince: ‘Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill.’ 
  • Juliet: ‘O fortune, fortune! All men call thee fickle’ 
  • Friar Laurence: ‘Unhappy fortune!’
  • Romeo: ‘Is it even so? Then I defy you, stars!’ 
  • Friar Laurence: ‘Fear comes upon me: O, much I fear some ill unlucky thing,’
  • Friar Laurence: ‘A greater power than we can contradict hath thwarted our intents.’ 

Conflict

How the theme is presented

  • Conflict is central to the play, with the feuding families providing a dramatic background to the tale. 
  • Shakespeare starts the play with a serious fight between the Montagues and Capulets, ending with the Prince’s dire warnings – showing this conflict has been an ongoing problem in Verona. 
  • Mercutio (the audience favourite for his humour) is killed in a fight with Tybalt, Romeo goes on to kill Tybalt and Paris. With so many main characters dying in fights Shakespeare shows the potential price of conflict in defence of honour. No one wins. Both families lose people before they draw an end to the fighting. 
  • As well as this obvious fighting in the streets of Verona, Shakespeare portrays more nuanced, personal elements of conflict both within the families and within individuals themselves. 
  • Juliet displays her inner conflict on her balcony in Act 2 Scene 2 when she knows she loves Romeo, but knows the difficulty his being a Montague will bring. She decides that she would happily give up her name and family to be with Romeo. 
  • Shakespeare shows us conflict within a family as Capulet tries to persuade Juliet – more and more forcefully – to marry Paris. 
  • Ultimately it takes multiple deaths for love to (in some way) overcome conflict. The final scene sees Montague and Capulet agree to end their feud following Romeo and Juliet’s suicides. 

Key Quotations

  • Tybalt: ‘What, drawn, and talk of peace! I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee’ 
  • Romeo: My life were better ended by their hate, than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.’ 
  • Friar Laurence: ‘These violent delights have violent ends and in their triumph die’
  • Mercutio: ‘A plague o’ both your houses!’
  • Tybalt: ‘Romeo, the hate I bear thee can afford no better term than this,- thou art a villain.’
  • Mercutio: ‘ask for me tomorrow, and you will find me a grave man.’ 
  • Mercutio: ‘Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.’ 
  • Prince: ‘See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love. And I for winking at your discords too have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punished.’ 
  • Capulet: ‘O brother Montague, give me thy hand’ 

Family

How the theme is presented

  • Shakespeare explores the complex nature of family relationships. He shows us the strong connection of family as well as the alienation caused by going against a strong family. This theme links closely with love and conflict. 
  • The Montagues and Capulets are high status, wealthy families in Verona. In this position the binds to Montague and Capulet go far beyond their immediate families. Many people who worked for the families would owe allegiance to them and wear their livery (the colours associated with that family). This means that the family feud ranges across Verona and involves many people beyond the families.  
  • We see some big differences between contemporary and modern families, but also some timeless similarities. 
  • ‘Ancient’ family conflict between the Montagues and Capulets is the backdrop to the play and is shown to overwhelm people’s lives.  
  • The conflict has been going on for years and the warring between the two sides is almost natural.
  • It’s strange, therefore, how similar the two families appear. Both high status, with children around the same age and a huge retinue of servants and allies. 
  • Both Romeo and Juliet are shown to be very young. Juliet is 13 and, although we don’t hear Romeo’s exact age, it is implied that he too is very young. Both characters are quite immature. Romeo roams around the streets with his mates and uses hyperbolic language to describe his love. Juliet refers to herself as an ‘impatient child’. 
  • Romeo and Juliet’s youth makes their alienation from their families and their ultimate tragedy all the more horrific for the audience. 
  • The two families are only reconciled after the death of their children. Shakespeare presents the strength and power of conflicts between families, as only such tragedy can overcome their feud. 

Key Quotations

  • Capulet: My child is yet a stranger in this world; She hath not seen the change of fourteen years’ 
  • Friar Laurence: ‘In one respect I’ll thy assistant be; for this alliance may so happy prove, to turn your households’ rancour to pure love’ 
  • Nurse: ‘first let me tell ye, if ye should lead her into a fool’s paradise, as they say, it were a very gross kind of behaviour, as they say: for the gentlewoman is young.’ 
  • Romeo: ‘Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee doth much excuse the apparenting rage to such a greeting: villain am I none; therefore farewell; I see thou know’st me not.’ 
  • Romeo: ‘good Capulet,- which name I tender as dearly as my own,- be satisfied.’ 
  • Capulet: ‘But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next, to go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church, or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither. Out, you green-sickness carrion! Out, you baggage! You tallow-face!’ 
  • Capulet: Hang thee, young baggage, disobedient wretch! I tell thee what: get thee to church o’Thursday, or never after look me in the face: speak not, reply not, do not answer me’  
  • Prince: ‘See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love. And I for winking at your discords too have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punished.’ 

Individual vs Society

How the theme is presented

  • Romeo and Juliet are presented as strong individuals. No matter their feelings, it takes strength for each to go against their whole family in the way they do. 
  • They also live a very oppressive society that demands allegiance to the law, religion, family and a very structured social order. Romeo and Juliet have to face down all of these constructs. 
  • Beyond their families they also go against a lot of the institutions and norms in their society. The society Shakespeare portrays relied heavily on loyalty to family and to social superiors. It was also a very patriarchal society where the head of the household (almost always a man) would have huge influence over his family and their lives. It was unthinkable for most people to go against this loyalty, even for such intense love. We do see bot Romeo and Juliet struggling with these conflicting ideas through the play. 
  • Given this patriarchal society, Juliet, in particular, shows her strong individual character in standing up to her father’s wish for her to marry Paris. 
  • Romeo and Juliet’s suicide is their final act of individual defiance against a society that won’t let them be together. Suicide was considered a tremendous sin in their very religious society and a dishonour. Romeo and Juliet even go against religion and society in their tragic deaths. 

Key Quotations

  • Romeo: ‘my reputation stain’d with Tybalt’s slander,- Tybalt that an hour hath been my kinsman! O sweet Juliet, thy beauty hath made me effeminate and in my temper soften’d valour’s steel!’ 
  • Juliet: ‘That “banished”, that one word “banished” hath slain ten thousand Tybalts.’ 
  • Romeo: ‘ Ha, banishment! Be merciful, say “death”, for exile hath more terror in his look’
  • In response to Romeo on banishment – Friar Laurence: ‘O deadly sin! O rude unthankfulness!’ 

Death

How the theme is presented

  • Death overshadows the whole play and links to all of the other themes discussed in this guide. 
  • From the opening prologue the audience knows that Romeo and Juliet have to die to end the feud between their families. We know their love is doomed and this shadow of death overhangs the play. 
  • We see death throughout the play. From Act III the death toll rises quickly – Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, Romeo and Juliet. Many of the main young characters die because of the family feud and the complexity of Romeo and Juliet’s love. 
  • The number of deaths by the end of the play follows the classic ideas of the Tragedy. Tragic plays show the audience the downfall of the main character and usually end with many of the characters dying. Those left usually promise to improve things and learn the error of their ways following the deaths of their friends and family. We see this here with Montague and Capulet promising to end their feud. 
  • Romeo and Juliet refer to the threat of death in their lives. Both would face retribution if the other family found them with each other. Shakespeare shows us that both characters are acutely aware of the risks they are taking. 
  • There’s some quite morbid context for this theme, but we should note that death was far more common in everyday life and even ‘normal’ at the time when Shakespeare was writing, particularly death from conflict and at a young age. For a Shakespearean audience death was present in their lives in a way that’s (thankfully) very different from the lives of a modern audience. 

Key Quotations

  • Juliet: ‘My grave is like to be my wedding bed.’
  • Mercutio: ‘A plague o’ both your houses!’
  • Mercutio: ‘ask for me tomorrow, and you will find me a grave man.’ 
  • Prince: ‘Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill.’ 
  • Capulet: ‘Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir; My daughter he hath wedded’ 
  • Romeo: ‘O true apothecary, they drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.’
  • Juliet: ‘O happy dagger! This is thy sheath: there rust, and let me die.’ 
  • Prince: ‘For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.’ 

There’s quite a lot to learn here, but it’s all important for your exam. The information in this guide should provide the basis for your revision of Romeo and Juliet themes. Use this guide to help ensure you feel confident explaining these themes. After that, have a go at some past exam papers and practise assessing the presentation of each theme while integrating and analysing the quotations.

You can find more help with Romeo and Juliet on the Royal Shakespeare Company website. They have some very useful plot summaries, quotation lists and revision resources. You can also leave me a comment below or message me directly with any specific questions.

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