Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Isn’t About What You Think It’s About

A closer look at how ‘violent delights have violent ends,’ from a conversation with Juliet’s siblings.

John William Waterhouse, “Juliet,” 1898
John William Waterhouse, “Juliet,” 1898 (photo: Public Domain)

A few days ago, I gave a talk on Romeo and Juliet to a high-school freshman class, after which I endeavored to answer the many great questions that the students asked. It dawned on me that these young people were actually a year older than Shakespeare’s 13-year-old heroine, a sobering thought that highlights Juliet’s extreme youth. Time did not permit me to answer all the students’ questions. I was pleased, therefore, when some of the unanswered questions were kindly supplied to me by the teacher who had invited me to speak to her class. Considering that the questions are written by those who are effectively Juliet’s peers, I thought it would be good to share them, along with my answers.

When Tybalt sees Romeo in the party, he wants to fight him and drive him out. On first glance this would be because Romeo is a Montague, but with the understanding of Romeo’s sinfulness, can't we see him as loving and protective of his cousin? As an older brother myself, I can sympathize with his wanting to protect Juliet. Did Shakespeare intend for Tybalt to be a caring/protective person or just as another violence-fueled character?

This is a great question to which, unfortunately, Shakespeare does not offer a definitive answer. It’s possible that Tybalt is concerned for his young cousin’s well-being, but his words suggest that he’s more concerned with pursuing the vendetta against the Montagues. He says a great deal about his hatred for the rival family and nothing directly about Juliet. I fear, therefore, that we must suspect the worst with respect to Tybalt’s violent and vituperative nature. 

Is there a particular production of the play that was your favorite? 

Almost all modern productions of the play, and all recent film productions, ignore the fact that Juliet is a mere child, a fact that Shakespeare accentuates by making her three years younger than she is in the source that inspired him. Shakespeare’s own daughter, Susanna, was about Juliet’s age when he wrote the play. The play’s tragic dimension springs from the failure of the adults to protect the child from the erotically-charged Romeo, who is at least five years Juliet’s senior and is, therefore, a sexual predator, to put the matter bluntly. This cautionary dynamic, which is clearly what Shakespeare intended and what his contemporaries would have understood was his intention, is ignored by modern romantically salacious productions.

If Romeo didn't really love Juliet, then why did Juliet's death drive him to commit suicide?

We need to understand what is love before we can judge whether Romeo truly loved Juliet. In Christian terms, the act of love is laying down our lives for the good of the other; in classical philosophical terms, love is wiling the good of the other. Where do we see any evidence of Romeo loving in this way? On the contrary, we see from the play’s outset that he is obsessed with an erotically-charged and ultimately self-gratifying understanding of love, which he himself calls “madness.” He attempts to seduce Rosaline, apparently even with the offer of money, but is rebuked. We are then told by the dispassionate and objective narrative voice of the Chorus that Romeo’s “love” for Juliet is the same as his unhealthy love for Rosaline. He is “Belov’d and loves again, Alike bewitched by the charm of looks.” We are told by Friar Lawrence that “violent delights have violent ends.” Romeo becomes possessed by his possession of Juliet, as she becomes possessed by her possession of him. Succumbing to this “madness” of which Romeo speaks and the “violent delights” of which Friar Lawrence warns, they meet their “violent ends” at their own intemperate hands.

How did the story of Romeo and Juliet get to be so misinterpreted to the point that it is widely taught in the way that is completely opposite to its true meaning?

There are two principal reasons. First is the rise of Romanticism in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, which placed feelings and emotions above reason. Romantics judge the play from the feelings of Romeo and Juliet, not by the rational consequences of their actions. Second is our ignorance of the times in which the play was written. It is assumed that it was normal for 13-year-olds to marry in Shakespeare’s time, which is nonsense. The average age for women to marry in Elizabethan England was in their early 20s; the average age for men was their late 20s. Shakespeare’s audience would have seen Juliet as a mere child. They would have been shocked that she was neglected by her parents in the face of the dangers she faced. 

In your opinion, what is Shakespeare trying to tell us through the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio?

He is showing us the wisdom of Friar Lawrence that “violent delights have violent ends.” This applies to those who follow the violence in their hearts, refusing to practice the virtue of temperance, as it applies to the other form of violent passion in the hearts of Romeo and Juliet, which also refuses to practice the virtue of temperance. 

Do you think the violent upbringing of Romeo because of the feud led to his intemperance and independence later?

This is a truly great question. It is clear that Romeo had very bad role models. His father is full of the violent desire for vengeance. It is hard to imagine that Romeo ever saw his parents practicing prudence or temperance. Is it any wonder, therefore, that he also fails to practice prudence and temperance? 

(An insight, rather than a question) Romeo is also a serpent to the Apothecary.

A wonderful insight and oh so true!

Did Romeo intentionally groom Juliet or was he blinded by attraction and so he did not notice the age gap?

He knows nothing about her whatsoever — not even her name. As the Chorus tells us he is bewitched by the charm of looks. He wouldn’t have known her age but one suspects that he wouldn’t have been deterred if he had. He is intent on gratifying his passionate desires with a woman. The only difference between his feelings for Rosaline and those for Juliet is that the former refused his advances whereas the latter, initially through her innocence and naiveté, was defenseless against them and later succumbed willingly. 

At first Juliet is hesitant and tells Romeo that their relationship is moving too quickly. Why do you think she agrees to marriage and changes her mind so fast?

In the balcony scene she is unaware that Romeo is listening when she declares her love for him. She thinks she is talking to herself. She would never have said the things she did if she’d known he was listening. Having confessed her love to him unwittingly, she can no longer deny it nor expect him to court her in the customary and decorous way, though it’s clear from her words that she would have preferred it had he done so.

I have shared these questions from those who might be considered Juliet’s latter-day peers as a means of showing the power of great literature to prompt great conversation. Such conversation, with great art as the catalyst, leads to questions that need to be asked and to answers that need to be understood. In our own days, characterized by a narcissistic daze, the lessons that Romeo and Juliet teach about “violent delights” and their “violent ends” are as relevant as ever. Let the conversation continue.