Shakespeare - Romeo and Juliet

The different kinds of affection portrayed in Romeo and Juliet

It is not surprising that the theme of affection pervades the play Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s most famous romantic tragedies.  But the affection felt by different characters is as diverse in range as it is in the depth of the emotion felt.   Here we will discuss the ways Shakespeare explores these different kinds of affection in some of his characters; from the deep and genuine love felt by Romeo and Juliet for each other, to the complex and turbulent emotions shared between Juliet and her parents; and also the doting, if misguided affection shown to Juliet by her nurse and similarly to Romeo by Friar Lawrence.  There is also the lively and playful affection of the three young men: Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio, for each other and the more questionable affection of Paris for Juliet and Romeo for Rosaline which should be briefly considered.

When we first meet Romeo, he appears to be deeply in love with Rosaline and suffering the heartfelt pain of rejection that is gently mocked by Benvolio and later by Mercutio.  The fact that Romeo’s love for Rosaline is forgotten the instant he sees Juliet, shows that this initial affection had no real depth and is probably provided by Shakespeare merely to act as a contrast to the real thing, when it arrives.  His exaggerated and highly poetic description of Juliet’s beauty ‘too rich for use, for earth too dear’ and his declaration: ‘Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!/For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night’ (I,5) leads the audience to wonder at its suddenness and question the sincerity of Romeo’s emotions. 

However Shakespeare probably presented Romeo in this way because he is young, passionate and headstrong and needs the steadying influence of Juliet’s profound and genuine love to provide the right balance, like yin and yang.  Together they complete each other and leave the audience in no doubt about their need for each other.  Their first conversation is a love duet which is formal in language and musical in its harmony and intricacy.  The metaphor of devotion and prayer expresses the tenderness they feel for each other, and the imagery of a pilgrim standing at the shrine of a saint, where lips should be used in prayer, not kissing, is very moving.  The seriousness of Romeo’s religious imagery must quickly dispel any doubts the audience might have about the sincerity of his affection.

Juliet is no less quick to fall in love with Romeo ‘My only love sprung from my only hate!’ (I,5) but, young as she is, the depth of her affection is clear.  Juliet does not hide behind hyperbole and the playful artifice of courtly love but speaks plainly of her feelings in direct contrast to Romeo’s elaborate language: ‘Fain would I dwell on form, fain, fain deny/What I have spoke, but farewell compliment.’  (II,2).  She begs a straight answer from Romeo ‘If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully;’ and admits she is ‘too fond’, meaning foolish.  The way Juliet’s language is controlled seems to be a deliberate device to show her sincerity and directness, leaving the audience in no doubt of the depth and totality of her affection.

Not presenting the subsequent wedding on stage is a clever dramatic device employed by Shakespeare to keep the audience focused on the quiet and sincere declaration of their love at the end of Act 2, and the inevitability of their deaths caused by this ‘death-marked love’ (Prologue).  Despite their youth, Shakespeare clearly intends his audience to be in no doubt about the depth of affection felt by the ‘star-crossed lovers’ (Prologue).

Whilst Paris’s unrequited love for Juliet could be said to mirror Romeo’s infatuation with Rosaline, the similarity between them ends there.  Paris speaks plainly of his interest in Juliet and his affection is tinged with rationalism, if not self-interest: ‘Younger than she are happy mothers made’ (I,2) he responds to Capulet’s objections that Juliet is too young for marriage.  Nevertheless, despite his rational nature, he is gentlemanly and sensitive in all his dealings, explaining to Friar Lawrence in Act 4 Scene 1 ‘I little talked of love,/for Venus smiles not in a house of tears’ when explaining the haste for their forthcoming marriage.  And, unlike Romeo’s passion for Rosaline, he remains steadfast in his affection and desire, behaving like a devoted husband to the end and vowing ‘The obsequies that I for thee will keep/Nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep’ (V,3).  There can be no doubt that Paris would have been a worthy husband for Juliet, despite his sober temperament. 

Perhaps the most interesting and complex affections shown in the play are the parent-child ones, in which I also include Nurse and Friar Lawrence.  We do not see Romeo with his parents but their love for him is not questioned.  Indeed Romeo’s banishment is more than Lady Capulet can bear and causes her to die of grief, showing her intense love.  In contrast, however, we do see Juliet with both her parents and witness their changing affections for each other.

In Act 1 Scene 2, Capulet leaves the audience in no doubt about his affection for Juliet and the place she holds in his heart: ‘Earth has swallowed all my hopes but she;/She’s the hopeful lady of my heart,’ he tells Paris.  Despite his reservations about her youth, he has no real objections to Paris’s suit and makes it clear he will not stand in his way providing marriage is what Juliet wants: ‘woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart/My will to her consent is but a part’ (I,2), showing he holds her happiness dear and will not force her to do anything against her will.  In the early stages of the play, Capulet could not be portrayed as a more affectionate father, which makes the contrast in his behaviour in Act 3 Scene 5 all the more shocking.

To her parents, Juliet is portrayed as a dutiful and obedient daughter.  In Act 1, Scene 3 Juliet responds to her mother’s request to consider Paris as a prospective husband with real respect:
            I’ll look to like, if looking liking move;
            But no more deep will I endart mine eye
            Than your consent gives strength to make it fly   – which shows her complete obedience and deference to her mother, and which contrasts so radically with Juliet’s rebellious outburst in Act 3 Scene 5:  ‘Now by Saint Peter’s Church and Peter too,/He shall not make me there a joyful bride.’

What happens to provoke the hostility of both her parents and turn affection to hatred is her new-found love for Romeo and her secret marriage.  Juliet was never as close to her mother as to her nurse and Lady Capulet is shocked by the change in her daughter and her angry declaration that she will not marry Paris.  ‘I would the fool were married to her grave,’ (III,5), she then tells her husband.  Perhaps the tragic irony of her reaction is necessary to warn the audience of what is to come, as parental curses are usually ominous and Shakespeare’s audience would have picked up on this.

Juliet’s new-found confidence in defying her parents’ wishes only brings misery to her and hastens her tragic end.  Her enraged father seems to bear no resemblance to the affectionate parent presented in Act 1.  His barrage of insults leaves the audience reeling and wondering whether his earlier affection was genuine or not.  What is clear however is their effect on Juliet.  She is torn between her conflicting feelings of affection and duty towards her parents and her profound love for Romeo, and the audience can only feel sympathy for her impossible situation.

If Juliet hoped to find comfort in her nurse, she could not have been more disappointed.  There is no doubt the nurse has a great affection for Juliet, but she is not a sensible woman and her actions and language throughout the play show this.  In fact Nurse’s affection for Juliet is more damaging than helpful, even though it is genuine.  Her ideas about love are coarsely sexual and bear no resemblance to the deeply romantic feelings Romeo and Juliet share for each other.  For this reason she cannot offer Juliet the comfort she needs and shocks her with her suggestion of marrying Paris compared to whom ‘Romeo’s a dishclout’.  Her simplistic assertion:
            I think you are happy in this second match,
            For it excels your first, or if it did not,
            Your first is dead, or ‘twere as good he were
            As living here and you no use of him  (III,5)  shows just how little comprehension the nurse has of the deep affection and commitment of true love.  All her advice to Juliet must now be questionable and prove the part she played in bringing about the secret marriage to be extremely ill-judged.  A wiser person would have seen this and acted differently.  While she was governed by her silliness, and despite her genuine affection for Juliet, she was clearly being ruled by her heart and not her head and consequently helped bring about the play’s tragic conclusion.

Of course responsibility should also fall on Friar Lawrence’s shoulders, not least because he was an educated man and should have counselled Romeo more carefully.  His introductory soliloquy lets the audience know that he is a good and kind man, but his incredulous exclamation when Romeo tells him that Rosaline is suddenly forgotten for his new ‘heart’s dear love’ (II,3),  suggests that he should have acted more cautiously.  Instead his affection for his pupil and his desire to ‘turn your households’ rancour to pure love’ (II,3), make him a party to the ensuing tragedy.  If he had heeded his own advice ‘Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast’ (II,3), he might have been a better friend.  Again, before he marries them, he tells Romeo to ‘love moderately,’ because ‘Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow’ (II,6) All this foreshadowing is acutely relevant to the tragedy, but it demonstrates the friar’s scepticism about love or affection and also that he was not actually capable of exercising moral judgement in matters of the heart and practising what he preached.

The last demonstration of affection worth mentioning is between the young men, especially Romeo and Mercutio.  This is most evident in the scene immediately after Romeo’s wedding.  Curiously, despite their friendship and strong affection, Romeo does not confide in his friends that he has married Juliet, which encourages them to continue their affectionate teasing about Rosaline. It also precipitates the fateful fight scene in Act 3, Scene 1, as it is probably Mercutio’s affection for Romeo as much as his quarrelsome spirit that prompts him to seize the opportunity to fight Tybalt after Romeo ignores the latter’s insults, which nobody understands.  Romeo’s attempt to break up the fight results in his friend’s death and his all-consuming passion to avenge this.  All reason flown, Romeo’s grief at the loss of his best friend drives him on to kill Tybalt even as he predicts the outcome: ‘This day’s black fate on moe days doth depend,/This but begins the woe others must end’ (III,1).  

Affection and love drive us to incredible lengths.  It drove Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio, Paris and Lady Montague to their premature deaths, yet in each case the type of affection was slightly different and manifested in different ways; all of them ultimately destructive.  It is often said that there is a fine distinction between love and hate and it may be this that Shakespeare intended his audience to consider as the prince, in his final speech, proclaims:  ‘See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,/that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!’ (V,3). The different kinds of affection that permeate the play in the end hold everyone remaining to account.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

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