There is not a single moment in this entire play where Romeo is not passionately in love with someone. And, when we meet him at the start of the play, he is heartbroken.
And who hasn’t experienced teenage heartbreak?
But, in true teenage style, Romeo’s heartbreak is more of the unrequited love variety. In simple terms, his crush – Rosaline – doesn’t fancy him back. What is really important to know about Romeo is that he is a Petrarchan lover, which means that he has a tendency to fall in love on sight and spend his time moping about how this perfect woman doesn’t love him back.
(This may be why Shakespeare decided to set his play in Italy. In Verona. It’s romance central.)
Romeo’s two friends, Mercutio and Benvolio, are on hand to help him through his heartbreak. Benvolio is giving Romeo his space and waiting for him to recover from it. Mercutio, on the other hand, thinks he needs to go to a party and meet another beautiful woman to get over Rosaline. It feels a little bit like the FRIENDS episode where Chandler is post-breakup and the boys and the girls have different ideas of how to get him over it. One is sensible; one involves staring at more women.
What I really wanted to find out about in this scene is how Romeo uses the language of love. And one book I’ve found particularly useful is Shakespeare’s Tragedies, ed. Laurence Lerner (1970). Here are a few lines I read that I thought were particularly pertinent to Romeo’s romantic, heartbroken language in this scene:
“It is characteristic of this love learnt by rote from sonnet writers that Romeo should combine image and puns which suggest this slave-like devotion to his mistress with other that imply a masterful attack on her chastity.”
“All the Petrarchan and anti-Petrarchan conventions are thus presented to us in this first scene: love as a malady, as worship, as war, as conflict.”
And the writer is accurate here. After all, Romeo is constantly comparing love to a sickness, to grief, to malady: “Griefs of mine own lie heavy in my breast” and “Bid a sick man in sadness”. But Romeo also talks of Rosaline’s chastity as something to be attained, which is hardly associated with romantic love: “She hath [sworn she will live chaste], and in that sparing makes huge waste”.
Thank you, Romeo, for equating love with an attack on someone’s chastity. *massive eye roll*.
But we must remember that this is a play of its time and while Romeo may have a highly questionable attitude to Rosaline (because apparently true love and sleeping with a virgin are now interchangeable), he is fulfilling the criteria of a heartbroken Petrarchan lover.
And yet at the same time, we do not feel this is true heartbreak for Romeo. This is posturing heartbreak, heartbreak that fulfils the stereotype he is. As Joseph Fiennes says in Shakespeare In Love (FYI – greatest film ever. Watch it, and thank me later): “Don’t spend it all at once… or what will you do in Act 2, when he meets the love of his life?” Romeo almost has to be this clichéd and heartbroken to allow his love for Juliet to transcend his feelings for Rosaline. Because his heartbreak at losing Juliet has to be like nothing we have seen before.
What this opening scene does offer us, however, is something safe and predictable; something that we can all watch and spy something familiar. It is from here that we can jettison ourselves into the true fated tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
I hope you have enjoyed this latest post on Romeo and Juliet! I am always so grateful for any shares or comments and I would love to know what you are enjoying about the play so far, or any parts of the play you want me to focus on in future blog posts!