William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a tragic tale of teenage love torn apart by hate. But there are more literary themes throughout the classic play than it appears. Take a look at the 7 main themes in Romeo and Juliet, along with text examples that support each theme.
At its core, Shakespeare's famous tragedy is a story about the all-consuming power of love. There are several love themes in Romeo and Juliet, but the strongest is how powerful love can be. We first see its depths when Romeo laments being out of favor of Rosaline, his first love:
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 made with the fume of sighs;
Being purg’d, 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."
- Act 1, Scene 1
Romeo's love for Rosaline, and his heartbreak at her disaffection, affects everything he says or thinks. The only force strong enough to break him of this spell is his newfound love for Juliet, which occurs at full force for Romeo upon seeing her:
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,
And touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night."
- Act 1, Scene 5
The love between Romeo and Juliet drives the plot forward, as nearly every decision they make is in service of their love for each other. One such decision is their choice to marry each other the day after meeting:
Ah, Juliet, if the measure of thy joy
Be heap’d like mine, and that thy skill be more
To blazon it, then sweeten with thy breath
This neighbour air, and let rich music’s tongue
Unfold the imagin’d happiness that both
Receive in either by this dear encounter.
Conceit more rich in matter than in words,
Brags of his substance, not of ornament.
They are but beggars that can count their worth;
But my true love is grown to such excess,
I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth."
- Act 2, Scene 6
Romeo's decision to stop the duel between Mercutio and Tybalt is another example of his love for Juliet. But when Tybalt kills Mercutio anyway, Romeo's love for his friend blinds him — just as his love for both Rosaline and Juliet blinded him before — and he kills Tybalt in an act of rage. The literary theme of love is responsible for both the happiness and the tragedy in the play.
Nothing is more powerful than love in Romeo and Juliet — except, at times, the power of hate. The source of this hatred is never revealed to the reader, but it's strong enough to attach each name to bitter resentment. For example, When Juliet meets Romeo, she is blinded by love until she finds out that he is a Montague.
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."
- Act 1, Scene 5
The pair spend the entire play pursuing their love and avoiding the hatred between their families. But ultimately, that hatred combined with Romeo and Juliet's love leads to their untimely deaths, as the prince declares:
This letter doth make good the Friar’s words,
Their course of love, the tidings of her death.
And here he writes that he did buy a poison
Of a poor ’pothecary, and therewithal
Came to this vault to die, and lie with Juliet.
Where be these enemies? Capulet, Montague,
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 punish’d."
- Act 5, Scene 3
The culmination of the hatred between the Capulets and Montagues is too poetic and tragic to bear, as "heaven finds means to kill your joys with love." The families swear to "a glooming peace" and pay tribute to each other's losses. They are forced to love each other due to the wretchedness of their hatred.
Many of the tragic events in Romeo and Juliet come from the characters' desire to serve their families, creating a theme of family and obligation. When Romeo and Juliet meet, the knowledge that they are in opposing families is enough to threaten the future of their relationship. Juliet talks to herself about this tragedy, and wishes that she could trade his name for their love:
’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself."
- Act 2, Scene 2
However, Juliet's loyalty to her family tests her love for Romeo. After they marry and Romeo kills Tybalt, Juliet is so overcome with grief for her cousin that she lashes out at Romeo:
O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical,
Dove-feather’d raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despised substance of divinest show!
Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st,
A damned saint, an honourable villain!
O nature, what hadst thou to do in hell
When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend
In mortal paradise of such sweet flesh?
Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound? O, that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous palace."
- Act 3, Scene 2
For just a moment, Juliet's obligation remains to her family, rather than with Romeo, who is now her husband. But soon she comes to her senses and again chooses Romeo over her grief for Tybalt.
Romeo and Juliet defy the rivalry of their parents, but they aren't the only characters who contribute to the theme of defying authority. Both the Montague and Capulet families are a part of Verona society, and there is no love lost between them and Prince Escalus who desperately tries to keep order in his town.
... Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word,
By thee, old Capulet, and Montague,
Have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets,
And made Verona’s ancient citizens
Cast by their grave beseeming ornaments,
To wield old partisans, in hands as old,
Canker’d with peace, to part your canker’d hate.
If ever you disturb our streets again,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.
For this time all the rest depart away:
You, Capulet, shall go along with me,
And Montague, come you this afternoon,
To know our farther pleasure in this case,
To old Free-town, our common judgement-place.
Once more, on pain of death, all men depart."
- Act 1, Scene 1
Throughout the play, characters constantly defy this authority as Romeo and Juliet defy their parents. Juliet draws the anger of her father when she refuses to marry Paris (because she is already married to Romeo):
Hang thee young baggage, disobedient wretch!
I tell thee what,—get thee to church a Thursday,
Or never after look me in the face.
Speak not, reply not, do not answer me.
My fingers itch. Wife, we scarce thought us blest
That God had lent us but this only child;
But now I see this one is one too much,
And that we have a curse in having her."
- Act 3, Scene 5
Juliet loves her father but must defy him to pursue her life with Romeo. Just as the Montagues and Capulets ignore the prince's commands, she ignores the demands of her parents, and pretends to be dead rather than listen to them.
The theme of violence and death is evident from the very first scene to the very last scene in the play. Every death in Romeo and Juliet comes from a cycle of violence that seems never-ending. The first character to die a violent death is Mercutio, who is killed by Tybalt under Romeo's arm, and avenged by Romeo himself:
Again in triumph, and Mercutio slain?
Away to heaven respective lenity,
And fire-ey’d fury be my conduct now!
Now, Tybalt, take the ‘villain’ back again
That late thou gav’st me, for Mercutio’s soul
Is but a little way above our heads,
Staying for thine to keep him company.
Either thou or I, or both, must go with him."
Tybalt then dies, and Romeo is banished. Lady Montague dies of a broken heart upon hearing the news of his banishment. Juliet works with Friar Lawrence to pose as dead and meet Romeo in the Capulet tomb. However, Romeo doesn't get the message, and kills both Paris and himself as a result.
... How oft when men are at the point of death
Have they been merry! Which their keepers call
A lightning before death. O, how may I
Call this a lightning? O my love, my wife,
Death that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.
Thou art not conquer’d. Beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death’s pale flag is not advanced there.
Tybalt, liest thou there in thy bloody sheet?
O, what more favour can I do to thee
Than with that hand that cut thy youth in twain
To sunder his that was thine enemy ..."
Romeo effectively ends the cycle of violence and revenge with his own death; he has killed the killer of Tybalt. Juliet takes her own life upon seeing Romeo dead, making hers the final price of the constant grudge between the families.
Romeo and Juliet are among the youngest characters in the play, and they act with the impulsivity of youth, which leads to folly. They are not the only characters to do so, as hotheaded Capulets and Montagues regularly brawl in the streets. But as Friar Lawrence warns, acting in haste can lead to overwhelming regret.
These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die; like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume.The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness,
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately: long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow."
- Act 2, Scene 6
The friar's foresight comes into play in the very next scene, where Romeo is overtaken by revenge and kills Tybalt. He later acknowledges the role his youth has played in his current situation.
Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel.
Wert thou as young as I, Juliet thy love,
An hour but married, Tybalt murdered,
Doting like me, and like me banished,
Then mightst thou speak, then mightst thou tear thy hair,
And fall upon the ground as I do now,
Taking the measure of an unmade grave."
- Act 3, Scene 3
Romeo's tears and misery over being banished, like Juliet's hysterics over the possibility of marrying Paris, contrast sharply with the politically minded adults in the room. Their youthful emotions carry them through love, marriage, and ultimately, their demise.
Like any tragedy, the main characters' fate is already decided by their fatal flaws and circumstances. The truly tragic moments of Romeo and Juliet occur when their fate seems avoidable — had Romeo successfully intervened in the duel between Tybalt and Mercutio, or had Friar's Lawrence's letter reached him in time, perhaps Romeo and Juliet would have survived. But as the original "star-cross'd lovers," their destiny was already decided.
Romeo's deep love and impulsiveness — his fatal flaw — brings him to avenge Mercutio and lament his own part in his fate.
Romeo, away, be gone!
The citizens are up, and Tybalt slain.
Stand not amaz’d. The Prince will doom thee death
If thou art taken. Hence, be gone, away!
O, I am fortune’s fool!"
Later, when Romeo is leaving Juliet for the last time, they discuss their future. Juliet has a premonition of the future:
O thinkest thou we shall ever meet again?
I doubt it not, and all these woes shall serve
For sweet discourses in our time to come.
O God! I have an ill-divining soul!
Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low,
As one dead in the bottom of a tomb.
Either my eyesight fails, or thou look’st pale.
And trust me, love, in my eye so do you.
Dry sorrow drinks our blood. Adieu, adieu."
Juliet's vision of Romeo in a tomb comes true in the last scene of the play, where he drinks poison to join her in death. The tragic events that have already unfolded to this point determine their future together.
The literary themes throughout Romeo and Juliet have made the story an enduring tragedy for generations of audiences. Death, life, love, hatred, obligation, and destiny all play a hand in the play's famous ending. Take a look at the soliloquies in Romeo and Juliet and how they reveal the characters' motives. Or, for a more in-depth look at the language of the tragedy, check out these examples of oxymorons in Romeo and Juliet.