The Language of Love in Romeo and Juliet Essay

Introduction: Reaching Feminism Through Rhetoric

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is arguably one of the most celebrated tales of doomed love in the entire corpus of Western literature. It has continued to enjoy an uncontested popularity for centuries after its first publication in 1597. Feminist readings that identify patriarchal domination as the cause of tragedy (Callaghan, 2001); discussions of how Love and Violence are equated together (Wells, 2005); exploration of how the notion of Fate operates in the play (Waters, 2007) are among the several, varied treatments that this play has received. However, Romeo and Juliet has not always been the critics’ first choice when it comes to the study of how the dialogues interact with each other; the attention has usually been focused on their lyrical, stylistic qualities (Honegger, 2005).

This paper questions how the language in the text, specifically in dialogues between the two protagonists, works beyond its literal meaning. What effects, other than the obvious expression of fanatical love, does this rhetoric have on the present-day reader? Does Shakespeare exploit the potential of this ornamental language to comment on society? And if so: how? What does Shakespeare have to say about his literary predecessor Petrarch?

The purpose is to try and reach a new reading of the characters, revealed through the language, with special reference to Juliet. Is she merely the demure recipient of Romeo’s love or does she have an active role in the relationship as well? Language and rhetoric, in specific scenes, is studied closely to try and re-establish Juliet as an assertive heroine.

The Balcony Scene or Where Petrarch Meets His Match:

Wisam Mansour in his essay entitled “The taming of Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” talks about how in the famous balcony scene (Scene 2.2) the use of the falconry image serves to portray Romeo as a falcon and Juliet as his trainer. Shakespeare, therefore, gives to Juliet, agency and power that is usually denied to women characters in Renaissance fiction (Mansour, 2006). Juliet becomes the masculine, dominating partner in this interaction. Although, overtly it is Romeo who is wooing Juliet, Juliet seems to be leading him along. This is made most apparent in the following lines:

JULIET : ‘Tis almost morning; I would have thee gone:
And yet no further than a wanton’s bird;
Who lets it hop a little from her hand,
Like a poor prisoner in his twisted gyves,
And with a silk thread plucks it back again,
So loving-jealous of his liberty.

ROMEO: I would I were thy bird. (II.ii.186-191)

The phrases “No further”, “poor prisoner” and “plucks it back again” make it evident that Juliet exercises total control over Romeo at this point. This is in keeping with the Petrarchan construction of the “beloved though cruel” (Cottino-Jones, 1975) object of desire where the lady love is often depicted as tyrannous to the insignificant lover-poet. But Juliet differs markedly from the typical Petrarchan beloved as she falls in love with Romeo right away instead of “freezing” his confession of love (Wells, 1998). This is only one of the ways in which Shakespeare uses and at the same time overturns typical Petrarchan conceits through the dialogues between Romeo and Juliet.

To return to the image of the falcon and the dominating figure of the falcon-trainer: as Mansour continues to point out, it is emphasized and reinforced several times in the scene. Juliet speaks of Romeo as a “tassel-gentle” that is to be “lured”. This gives Juliet an almost manipulating quality. She, far from being just the passive recipient of Romeo’s love, is using her hold over him to repeatedly confirm his commitment to her. And Romeo, again like the typical Petrarchan lover, complies by launching on even more grandiloquent praises and declarations of love (Mansour, 2006).

For each of her inquiries, Romeo’s answers get progressively, and almost comically, more unreserved. Juliet asks him how he managed to scale the steep orchard walls and Romeo answers that it was with love’s “light wings” (bird imagery, again); Juliet wants to know who helped him find his way and again Romeo answers that it was love that lent him “counsel” (II.ii.62-81).

This scene therefore, highlights Juliet’s position of power over Romeo and also mocks the typical Petrarchan conceits and exaggerated use of rhetoric. Shakespeare criticizes this naïve, vociferous sort of love in several other plays too. For instance, in As You Like It, where Ganymede (Rosalind) continually mocks Orlando’s heated outpouring of passion for Rosalind (III.ii.). Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to suggest that this is how Shakespeare uses seemingly innocuous language, ardent exchanges of affection between two teenagers, to criticize traditional, normative gender roles and the prevalent poetic diction.

3. “Thou mayst prove false” – Language and Sincerity:

In her conversation with Paris at the beginning of Act Four, Juliet uses extremely formal language to evade him:

PARIS: Happily met, my lady and my wife!

JULIET: That may be, sir, when I may be a wife.

PARIS: That “may be” must be, love, on Thursday next.

JULIET: What must be shall be.

(IV.i.18-21)

Throughout the play her conversations with Romeo are in stark contrast to those she has with Paris. She deliberately uses language to puzzle and deceive Paris without any obvious sign of protest:

PARIS: Do not deny to him that you love me.

JULIET: I will confess to you that I love him.

(IV.i.24-25)

Juliet does not lie or pretend to love Paris but she also maintains her ambiguity with the help of the rhetoric. Clearly, she is not alien to the deceptive uses of language. Contrast this with what she says to Romeo from her balcony:

Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say “Ay,” 
And I will take thy word; yet if thou swear’st, 
Thou mayst prove false; at lovers’ perjuries 
They say, Jove laughs. O gentle Romeo, 
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully;

(II.ii.90-94)

Juliet’s doubts lie, it appears, not in Romeo’s sincerity of feeling but in the weight that the words carry. If the sentiment is true, then it is much preferred for it to be “pronounced faithfully” than in ornate terms. In the following lines, Juliet repeatedly interrupts Romeo’s lofty words. At last Romeo asks: “What shall I swear by?” and she answers “Do not swear at all” (II.ii.112). This poignant, earnest exchange occupies a single line and serves to intensify the contrast against the eloquence performed before and after. Juliet is again asserting herself and reminding Romeo that they are past the usual formalities of courtship, now that Romeo has overheard her confession of love (Honneger, 2006).

Through Juliet’s concern and distress over language, Shakespeare comments on how the traditional exaggeration of the Petrarchan sonnet is facile and that true love, unlike what transpires between Romeo and Rosaline on the one hand and Juliet and Paris on the other, is best expressed in simple, non-poetic terms, if at all. Shakespeare repeatedly cuts Romeo short when he addresses Juliet (II.ii). Furthermore, he allows the superficial Lady Capulet a sonnet when she describes the virtues of Paris (I.iii.79-94). In this parodied inversion of the Petrarchan sonnet, it is a woman who launches forth on the seemingly endless qualities of the man. Lady Capulet acts as a foil to Juliet, and in her almost sycophantic blazon of Paris’ merits, she conforms to the stereotype of the submissive, devoted woman. Even though, apparently she has more agency than Juliet as she is more outspoken, it emerges that it is Juliet who is more liberated from the patriarchic clutches of her family.

4. Conclusion: Juliet – “More Rich in Matter than in Words”

Even from this specific-study of narrow scope, the speeches of the characters reveal that Shakespeare does not in fact conform to his contemporary literary expectations. He uses Petrarchisms and yet trips them up himself. He is an extremely self-conscious user of the poetic form and wherever the characters lapse into verse, for instance Lady Capulet’s sonnet or Romeo’s declarations of love for Rosaline (I.i. 171-183, 184-194, 205-224), the sentiment expressed seems superficial when contrasted with the simpler, more urgent speeches of the two lovers at the centre. As Juliet confesses:

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.

(II.vi.30-34)

The language of love used in Romeo and Juliet, that has no doubt inspired several other wooers in similar scenes re-enacted even today, is therefore not just pleasing to hear. Autonomously, it adds layers of meaning to the story, sometimes even adding a new dimension to the characters, especially Juliet. On closer inspection, Romeo appears too idealistic against the more practical, grounded speeches of Juliet who uses language in a sparse, sincere way when expressing true love and yet uses it to control him. She uses language in another way to deceive Paris; remaining polite yet evasive. Rather than her more eloquent male companions, Juliet seems to have mastered the art of rhetoric most effectively in the play. It is truly a tale of Juliet and her Romeo.

Works Cited

Callaghan, Dympna C. A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. Print.

Cottino-Jones, Marga. “The Myth of Apollo and Daphne in Petrarch’s Canzoniere: The Dynamics and Literary Function of Transformation.” Francis Petrarch, Six Centuries Later: A Symposium. Chapel Hill: Department of Romance Languages, University of North Carolina, 1975. Web. 10 Apr. 2010.

Honegger, Thomas. “’Wouldst thou withdraw love’s faithful vow?’: The Negotiation of Love in the Orchard Scene (Romeo and Juliet Act II).” Journal of Historical Pragmatics 7.1 (2006): 73-88. Web. 11 Apr. 2010.

Mansour, Wisam. “The Taming of Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.” The Explicator 66.4 (Summer 2008): 206. Web. 11 April 2010.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It.

Waters, Douglas W. “Fate and Fortune in Romeo and Juliet.” Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 74-90. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.

Wells, Robin H. “Neo-Petrarchan Kitsch in Romeo and Juliet.” The Modern Language Review 93.4 (Oct. 1998): 913. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.