Contrasting Views of Love in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet


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In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the views of love held by the character Romeo contrast sharply with the views of Mercutio. Romeo's character seems to suffer from a type of manic depression. He is in love with his sadness, quickly enraptured and easily crushed again on a passionate roller coaster of emotion. Mercutio, by contrast is much more practical and level headed. His perceptions are clear and quick, characterized by precise thought and careful evaluation. Romeo, true to his character begins his appearance in the play by wallowing in his depression over Rosaline who does not return his love:

ROMEO (Act I Scene I Lines 185-193)

Why, such is love's transgression.

Griefs of mine own lie heavy in my breast,

Which thou wilt propagate, to have it prest

With more of thine: this love that thou hast shown

Doth add more grief to too much of mine own.

Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;

Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;

Being vex'd a sea nourish'd with lovers' tears:

What is it else? a madness most discreet,

A choking gall and a preserving sweet.

The references to "fire" and "sea" are signs that these are lines of passion rather than love. Romeo sees himself as subjective to his situation, "Doth add more grief to too much of mine own." and is wallowing in his self-pity as well. Romeo is only forgiven these faults because he is young, naïve, and destined to die. Were he an older character audiences would not so easily forgive him. Mercutio's levelheadedness serves to provide a contrast to which Romeo can be endeared. Were both doting depressives, the play's roster would be off balance.

MERCUTIO (Act I Scene IV lines 23-26)

And, to sink in it, should you burden love;

Too great oppression for a tender thing.

ROMEO

Is love a tender thing? it is too rough,

Too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.

 

Romeo's perception of love as "rough" is generally due to his own response to the events in his life. Mercutio sees love as a "tender thing," and therefore offers this advice:

MERCUTIO (Act I Scene IV lines 27&28)

If love be rough with you, be rough with love;

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Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.

 

Mercutio sees himself as in control, he is an active participant in his own life, as contrasted to Romeo's subjective acceptance of his own reactions. "If love be rough with you, be rough with love . . ." is a statement of someone who believes that love can be controlled.

Romeo loves by night. This adds a dreamlike, surreal quality that may symbolize fate being against him. Mercutio appears mostly by day, which shows his orientation toward realism. Night serves to disconnect from the reality of day.

ROMEO (Act II Scene II lines 75-78, 139-141)

I have night's cloak to hide me from their sight; (eyes in one version rather than sight)

And but thou love me, let them find me here:

My life were better ended by their hate,

Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.

////

O blessed, blessed night! I am afeard.

Being in night, all this is but a dream,

Too flattering-sweet to be substantial.

 

Romeo is disconnected, possibly due to having lived a sheltered life, from the reality of the hate. He seems oblivious to the fact that if he is killed he will not have Juliet's love. The last lines, "Being in night, all this but a dream, // Too flattering-sweet to be substantial." allude to sleep, a universal symbol for death while "too flattering sweet" suggests a reason for their deaths; their naïvete leads to their downfall.

Friar Lawrence advises Romeo regarding the dangers of his impetuousness when he says, "These violent delights have violent ends //// Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;/Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow." It seems that from the Friar's objective viewpoint the fatal flaws in Romeo's situation are quite clear, but Romeo is too self centered to hear advice.

ROMEO (Act II Scene II lines 156-157)

Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books,

But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.

 

This rhyming passage captures the conflict between knowledge (the reference to school) and emotion. It parallels the viewpoints of Romeo and Mercutio and in line 155 associates knowledge with daylight. By implication night being the opposite represents emotion.

 

MERCUTIO (Act II Scene IV lines 37-42)

Without his roe, like a dried herring: flesh, flesh,

how art thou fishified! Now is he for the numbers

that Petrarch flowed in: Laura to his lady was but a

kitchen-wench; marry, she had a better love to

be-rhyme her; Dido a dowdy; Cleopatra a gipsy;

Helen and Hero hildings and harlots; This be a grey

eye or so, but not to the purpose.

 

The passage's opening line ends with ". . . flesh, flesh," indicative of the realism which Mercutio projects. The reference to a "dried herring" are accusing Romeo of being consumed, conquered, and made limp by love. (Clupeid is another word for herring, which sounds like Cupid.) He sees women as inconsequential. When he says, " . . . runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole." (Act II Scene IV line 93) Mercutio compares love to cheap jewelry.

With two holders of different views on love both dead, concluding that one perspective is superior to the other is difficult; neither character's perspective saved him from death. Comparison of the two characters, who are foils for one another, brings a clearer picture of the events within the storyline. Shakespeare used characters with multiple perspectives to add realism and depth to his characters and plot.

 

 


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