Romeo and Juliet: A Tragedy of Four Loves

“Romeo and Juliet: A Tragedy of Four Loves”

by William Soderberg

Presented at Montgomery College-Rockville, 2 April 2013

Romeo and Juliet is a tale of tragic love–not just one love, but four loves. Let me explain.

Clues to the meaning of Shakespeare’s plays often lie in the social and personal experiences that contributed to the play.

Shakespeare grew up in England during the Elizabethan era–a dangerous time when the country was deeply torn by religious division that split communities and families. This religious division was closely tied to political struggles for power.

In the generation before Shakespeare, Pope Clement VII denied Henry VIII’s request for a divorce. Henry’s response was to split the Anglican Church from Rome and to declare himself the head of the Church of England. In the turmoil that followed, Henry ordered the burning of more than 80 Catholic monasteries and abbeys in England.

In 1570, when Shakespeare was six years old, the Catholic “John Felton nailed to the door of the bishop of London’s house a papal bull excommunicating Queen Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII. The pope, Pius V, added an order to all (Queen Elizabeth’s) Catholic subjects ‘that they presume not to obey her, or her monitions, mandates, and laws,” lest they too be excommunicated. Felton was tortured, convicted of treason, and executed. (Following Queen Elizabeth’s excommunication by the pope,) English Catholics were regarded with greatly intensified suspicion” (Greenblatt, p. 92). The frequent tortures inflicted during this era involved the maximum pain, suffering, and public humiliation that could be inflicted on an individual–who was held up as an example so authorities could maintain public order.

In 1580 Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed that the assassination of England’s heretic queen (Elizabeth I) would not be a mortal sin. Thomas Cottam, a Catholic priest and brother of the Catholic schoolmaster in Stratford whom William Shakespeare’s father had hired, was arrested, tortured, and executed for conspiracy against the Queen. (Greenblatt, p. 99) Shakespeare’s mother’s second cousin, William Arden, suffered the same fate.

Shakespeare himself was raised in a family with loyalties divided between the Anglican and Catholic churches–his mother Mary being Anglican and his father John Catholic. In this upbringing, Shakespeare would have been introduced to the roles that were unique to different levels of society.

The leaders (political and religious) were said to play their proper roles when they loved the community (agape) and, as an expression of this love, kept the peace. Those in the military were willing to give their lives for the preservation of the community; the military thrived when soldiers were committed to the love of friends (philia). A third type of love, love of family (storge), was the touchstone, the building block, of the community–a love most closely associated with people in the private sector: merchants, craftsmen and farmers. Romantic love between two people was a fourth type of love (eros), but one that needed guidance from parents and approval from the clergy if it were to lead to marriage.

Early in his career as a playwright, Shakespeare drew upon a story by Arthur Brooke, The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet and, working mainly from this source, wrote the play Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s play became immensely popular at the Globe Theatre, a popularity that has lasted for centuries. Let’s examine the play to see if we can get some clues as to why Romeo and Juliet has resonated so much with Shakespeare’s audiences in his own time and in ours.

Fighting in the streets of Verona, Italy between two feuding families opens the play Romeo and Juliet; the Prince appears and tries to restore public order by threatening death to any member of the feuding families caught fighting in public. A conflict is clear: peace in the community is threatened by the honor code of family members committed to retaliation when one of their kindred is injured or killed. Love of the community, which commits community leaders to preserve harmony in the community, is threatened by a family love that has pitted two families against each other.

The feud between the two families, the Montagues and the Capulets, disturbs the peace in the community. As the leaders of the community try to bring peace, their concern and love for the community prompt the political leader, the Prince, to make rigid rules and another leader, the Friar, hastily to devise secret strategies in an effort to bring an end to the family violence and factionalism.

The romantic love between Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet takes center stage amidst this backdrop of conflict between the love of the community and love of family. The friar finds in the sudden, intense romantic bond between Romeo and Juliet a possible way to try to unite the warring Montague and Capulet families and bring an end to the feud. With this goal in mind, the friar agrees to Romeo’s urgent request to wed Romeo and Juliet secretly that very day, a request that the Friar agrees to without the knowledge or consent of the parents of either Romeo or Juliet. He performs the hastily arranged marriage of Romeo and Juliet.

The central crisis in the play is brought on by the love of friends. Romeo, shortly after his secret marriage with Juliet, is incensed when his friend the soldier Mercutio is killed by Tybalt, a member of the Capulet family. In a fit of vengeful fury, Romeo duels with Tybalt and kills him. For this act, the prince banishes Romeo from Verona.

Romeo threatens suicide, but the Friar calms him and advises him to go to the neighboring city of Mantua; the Friar will try to arrange for Romeo and Juliet to re-unite in Mantua. Romeo follows the Friar’s advice and travels to Mantua.

Juliet’s parents, unaware of the marriage between Romeo and Juliet, arrange for Juliet to marry a count, Paris–in just three days time. Juliet implores the Friar to help her, and the Friar devises a plan that would allow Juliet to feign her death with the help of a potion that will make her appear dead for 42 hours. In the Friar’s plan, Romeo will return to Verona and, when Juliet wakes, the two will secretly escape together to Mantua.

Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men….

The Friar’s plan unravels when Romeo’s man Balthasar reaches Romeo before the Friar’s
messenger arrives in Mantua and tells Romeo that he has witnessed Juliet’s funeral. Romeo returns hastily to Verona and arrives before Juliet’s potion has worn off. Romeo encounters Paris at Juliet’s tomb and, when Paris tries to arrest him, the two engage in a duel and Romeo kills Paris. When he catches sight of Juliet’s alleged corpse, Romeo takes a fatal poison. Minutes after Romeo has died, Juliets potion wears off and she awakes–only to find Romeo lying dead. Juliet takes Romeo’s dagger, pierces her own heart, and dies.

The families and the Friar gather at the ghastly site of this tragedy, and the Friar tells the details of his failed plan. The heads of the Montague and Capulet families declare an end to their feud. Montague describes Juliet Capulet as “true and faithful,” and he promises to raise a statue of pure gold in her honor. Capulet adds that Romeo will lie by his daughter’s side and describes Romeo and Juliet as “poor sacrifices of our enmity.”

Why has this play been so well received–during Shakespeare’s lifetime and on into our own day. The immediate demand for the play was great and it was performed several times during Shakespeare’s lifetime. According to a tribute to Shakespeare by L. Diggs in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works published after his death, Romeo and Juliet received loud applause at the Globe Theatre performances; Digges proclaimed that the passions of Romeo and Juliet would never again be matched on the stage. This play won over Shakespeare’s audience as it has won audiences for the past 517 years. Why? How can the power of this play depicting the suicides of two lovers be explained?

The play’s popularity and staying power, I suggest, is explainable in large part because of Shakespeare’s depiction of the conflict between the four loves. Shakespeare was addressing an audience that knew all too well family divisions and feuds. He cleverly spoke to his audience indirectly about issues that deeply divided people in his day. He also wrote from his mind and heart about his own, often painful, experiences in a body of writing that touches a universal chord among his many audiences.

Shakespeare carefully concealed his intentions when he addressed topics of a political nature. But why did he have to do so?

The religious divisions between Anglicans and Catholics rent England asunder for more than a century, a division that culminated in a series plots and civil wars. When Catholic monarchs would come into power, they would persecute and execute Anglican leaders; when Anglican monarchs came to power, they would search out, torture and execute people trying to resurrect Catholicism in England.

Shakespeare as an artist makes a statement in Romeo and Juliet and other plays about this religious and political turmoil that divided his people. However, he had to conceal very carefully his statements since the reigning monarch gave an order that plays must be censored to assure they did not address contemporary political issues. “In 1559, the first year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter, the queen instructed her officers not to permit any ‘interlude’ (play) to be ‘played wherein either matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the commonweal shall be handled or treated. ….the censors were alert to anything that came too close to contemporary controversies” (Greenblatt, p. 339).

The famous Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes in 1605 was an attempt to assassinate King James I, his entire family and the court, and virtually all the political leaders gathered for the opening of a new session in Parliament–in retaliation for the King’s failure to call for an end to the persecution of Catholics. (Greenblatt, p. 336)

How does Shakespeare address England’s political, religious, and social turmoil in Romeo and Juliet? His approach was subtle, but not so subtle that his audience did not immediately recognize what he was saying.

Shakespeare depicts a city torn apart by a family feud: a love of family has gone awry when retaliation and revenge are directed against a rival family. The community leaders, if they play their proper role, are expected to give their primary affections to the community and to keep peace and harmony in the community. The Prince tries to impose order in the community to keep the peace, but his order is harsh and fierce. If the Prince is to restore order, he believes he must be strict and harsh–to keep in check the disordered family love that has gone awry and escalated into hatred of another family.

Into this disordered social backdrop Shakespeare introduces love between particular individuals–the love of friends and the romantic love of Romeo and Juliet.

Here is Shakespeare’s presentation of the very first encounter between the two young lovers. Do you think Shakespeare’s audience, grown cynical toward religious authorities, would have recognized that he was talking about religious issues in this first encounter between Romeo and Juliet?

ROMEO. (takes Juliet’s hand) If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
JULIET. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which manner devotion shows in this:
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands to touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
ROMEO. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
JULIET. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
ROMEO. O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do,
They pray: grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
JULIET. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
ROMEO. O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do,
They pray: grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
JULIET. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
ROMEO. Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take. (kissing her)
JULIET. Then have my lips the sin they have took.
ROMEO. Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again. (kissing her)
JULIET. You kiss by the book.

(670-690 674/58: These references are to lines and page numbers in The First Folio of Shakespeare: Norton Facsimile Edition)

It has become clear to his audience that religious authorities with their alleged love of the community have become mired in political struggles for power, and Shakespeare in this passage turns this authority on its head. To the delight of his Elizabethan audience, I suggest, Shakespeare applies to romantic/erotic love the religious language of shrines, saints and sinners that the audience has regularly, in religious ritual, heard applied to love of the community.

Shakespeare has set the stage with a portrait of a society that has lost its center and is spiraling downward and out of control. Romeo, however, tells us that a center can be found: his home is where his heart is.

Can I go forward when my heart is here?
Turn back dull earth, and find thy Center out. (748-49 674/58)

Romeo’s intense romantic feelings for Juliet not only give him a center: his love gives meaning to the earth itself. Romeo has, in the midst of a chaotic family feud, found a home. In his encounter with Juliet on the balcony, Juliet says she has forgotten what she was going to say. Romeo replies:

And I’ll still stay, to have thee still forget,
Forgetting any other home but this. (983-4 676/60)

Amidst disorder, the two young lovers momentarily find harmony, a center, and a home. The family feuding, however, throws off any rhythm in their romantic love as well as the timing in the love of community and friends: the courting of the romantic lovers is frantic, the Prince gives an overly hasty order, and the love of his friend killed in the feud drives Romeo into a frenzy. All is askew when the music of love becomes an unbearable cacophony.

Shakespeare accentuates the frantic tempo of his play by compressing Romeus and Juliet’s three-month courtship in Arthur Brooke’s story to less than 24 hours. This change from the source story heightens the dramatic intensity of the conflict in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet–an intensity that mirrors the insanity of imprisonment, torture and execution of political enemies in Elizabethan society on allegedly religious grounds.

As Romeo confides to the Friar his sudden, passionate love for Juliet, the Friar responds:

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. (1401 679/63)

The Friar’s warning is ironic: while he is directly warning Romeo about being too hasty in love, the Friar’s own love for the community and for restoring peace leads him to a hasty decision to marry Romeo and Juliet. Immediately following Romeo’s request, the Friar promises to assist Romeo in marrying Juliet and offers as his reason:

For this alliance may so happy prove
To turn your household rancor to pure love. (1099-1101 677/61)

The community has a chance to approve of a marriage through the practice known as announcing the banns of marriage. The Friar in his haste to bring an end to the family feud, however, by-passes the banns and agrees to perform a private marriage ceremony in his own cell within a matter of hours.

Here we find Shakespeare reflecting a personal experience: Shakespeare himself had experienced the by-passing of the banns. When he married Ann Hathaway, Ann was three months pregnant. A hefty sum was posted by two individuals, probably friends of the Hathaway family, so that the marriage between Will and Ann could take place without the traditional posting of the banns.

Shakespeare’s own judgment of the disordered and misdirected love of officials, the clergy, and soldiers may perhaps be heard in the words of Mercutio. Mercutio tells of Queen Mab, the fairy of love who brings dreams of “love” to lawyers, court officials (courtiers), parsons (priests) and soldiers. While lawyers and court officials should be committed to peace through justice, Mercutio describes their “love dreams” as increasing personal wealth through their public offices.

She gallops o’er Lawyers’ fingers who straight dream on fees….
She gallops o’er a Courtier’s nose and then dreams he of smelling out a suit.
(525-30 673/57)

The parson, whose love of the community should aim toward preserving peace, dreams instead, according to Mercutio, of great donations:

“Sometimes she comes with tithe-pigs tail, tickling a Parson’s nose as he’s asleep, then he dreams of another benefice.”

The soldier, whose willingness to put his life on the line should be motivated by love for the community, dreams instead of inflicting wanton violence:

“Sometimes she drives o’er a soldier’s neck, and then dreams he of cutting foreign throats….”

Mercutio, a soldier, challenges Tybalt from the Capulet family; Tybalt kills Mercutio in the duel. As Mercutio lies dying from the wound inflicted by Tybalt, he cries out:

“A plague on both your houses.” (1524 680/64)

I suggest this could be Shakespeare’s own voice and judgment on the source of the disordered and tragic love–the endless, senseless feuding in his beloved England.
Artists, it is often said, are ahead of their time, and the philosophy of one century becomes the common sense of the next (attributed to Henry Ward Beecher). In Shakespeare’s writings, art and philosophy come together.

William Butler Yeats wrote the following in “The Second Coming” as he foresaw the coming of World War I.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

Shakespeare saw in 16th-century England that bonds of friendship and the ceremony of innocent courtship between romantic lovers were drowned by the family divisions and endless political feuds fought under the guise of religion. These disputes were about to unleash a prolonged series of civil wars in England and other countries of Europe.

The romantic love that centers a person is drowned when the love of family and community are in disarray. Romeo describes himself as fortune’s fool: the double suicide that Shakespeare depicts is not an isolated event of two crazed lovers. It is the tragic outcome of a society that collapses when life’s four critical loves–community, family, friendship, and romantic love–come into conflict, a conflict that exposes a society that has lost its center.

Religion in its Latin root (“re-ligare”) means “to bind together again.” Shakespeare paints a picture of the price of social harmony. The sacrifice of innocent love in this story of woe, of Juliet and her Romeo, brings peace to the warring community.

Within a century of Shakespeare’s lifetime, a right to religious liberty was asserted in the 17th century–a right born of the widespread torture and suffering of individuals subject to political struggles fought in the name of religion.

Lest we forget, let’s turn our attention to the warnings found in Romeo and Juliet.


Robert Greenblatt. Will In the World. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Co., 2004.

Charlton Hinman and Peter W.M. Blaney. The First Folio of Shakespeare (1623). Norton Facsimile Edition. W.W. Norton and Co., 1968.