Did Romeo Love Juliet?

It seems a silly question. The Shakespeare play Romeo & Juliet is third only to Hamlet and Macbeth in fame, and widely considered the most famous romance in the English language (though I would argue Pride and Prejudice to be more influential on literature). Yet this is a question that a former professor of mine, Dr. John Cuddeback, examined in a blog post of his own yesterday. 

“Young men’s love then lies
not truly in their hearts but in their eyes.”
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

The other day wondering aloud over breakfast whether a young man is capable of truly loving a woman, I asked, “What’s wrong with young men?”

My wife immediately answered: “They’re young.”

Shakespeare’s friar challenges Romeo about falling in love with Juliet when moments before he was in love with Rosaline. Romeo defends himself:
“Thou chid’st me oft for loving Rosaline.”
The friar retorts: “For doting, not for loving, pupil mine.”

Can Romeo’s feelings for Juliet, or the feelings he had for Rosaline, be called love? …an unusual question, perhaps, about one of the most famous ‘love stories’ of all time. But the friar has his doubts about Romeo’s feelings, and this is surely a question Shakespeare wants us to ask.

What after all is the love of a man for a woman? How are we to recognize that which is notorious for counterfeits? I think my wife is right. The key is in the friar’s words. Young men’s love lies not in their hearts but in their eyes.

The problem with young men is that they are young. So they aren’t able truly to love, with their hearts.

Now, there are two separate issues here. There is the obvious one: whether young men are capable of love. Dr. Cuddeback goes on to discuss it in his essay, but neglects a crucial stage of the philosophical point: at what point, and by what measure, can young men be deemed capable of love? And what form of love? And what of women? These are all necessary in order to even begin discussion.

The second is less obvious, at least to those who have not studied the play Romeo & Juliet. Namely, that Dr. Cuddeback is misinterpreting a tragedy as if it were a treatise on all young love.

This is, of course, not an uncommon stance. After all, who hasn’t seen a meme like this one?


Except that those who have actually studied the play, and not simply “read the story,” would understand that the tragedy of Romeo & Juliet is that a true romance was led to disaster by bad choices, inexperience, and hardened hearts.

And as it happens, I just gave a lecture on writing romance at Christendom College, the same institution where Dr. Cuddeback teaches philosophy (and quite ably, make no mistake; my understanding of the Summa is due largely to his efforts, and he gave me the second-highest grade I received of any one course while a student there), this past Saturday. One of the key examples I used in demonstrating the difference between a character in lust and in love was in Act One of this play.

If you don’t like Shakespeare, you may want to look away; we’re going to get into the guts of his wordsmithing now. Though, on second thought — keep reading. You might learn why he’s not just famous for being famous.

The first we see of Romeo is when he greets his friends, and confesses that he has fallen in love with Rosaline.

Bid a sick man in sadness make his will:
Ah, word ill urged to one that is so ill!
In sadness, cousin, I do love a woman.

This is before he meets Juliet, the tragic heroine of the play, and he then falls in love with her; and so it seems that Dr. Cuddeback might be right, and that the play shows us the danger of fleeting love. Everything from that point on, after all, leads inevitably to disaster. After all, how can anyone say that Romeo truly knew love when he so quickly fell out of love with the last girl?

I aim’d so near, when I supposed you loved.

A right good mark-man! And she’s fair I love.

A right fair mark, fair coz, is soonest hit.

Um . . . wait . . . is he saying what I think . . . ? Really?

Yes. Yes, he is. And yes, people who think they’re all hip and modern by saying “I’d hit that” are just quoting Shakespeare.

Well, in that hit you miss: she’ll not be hit
With Cupid’s arrow; she hath Dian’s wit;
And, in strong proof of chastity well arm’d,
From love’s weak childish bow she lives unharm’d.

Oh dear. Didn’t someone tell me that Shakespeare was from those days when no one thought of sex outside marriage?

Shakespeare human nature

Yeah, little bit of advice . . . Shakespeare was a genius, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have some raunchy stuff going on. I remember a classmate not realizing exactly what Hamlet was saying to Ophelia during the play-within-a-play scene until she heard it read out loud by student actors preparing for a full performance. And that, my dear reader, is tame. Don’t be fooled by ye olde English; Shakespeare was no Puritan.

She will not stay the siege of loving terms,
Nor bide the encounter of assailing eyes,

But here, in this passage, we get a sense of who Romeo is, and what he thinks love is about. Notice how he refers to his attempted courtship: Rosaline’s chastity is well arm’d, and so she lives unharm’d. His words to her are a siege, and his eyes assail her. These are terms of war and struggle, where a prize is to be won. This is not romance.

Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold:

Definitely not romance. He tried to buy his way into her skirts as if she were a whore.

O, she is rich in beauty, only poor,
That when she dies with beauty dies her store.

And here we see his justification for this endeavor. He’s not out for his own pleasure. Oh, no, he’s not selfish at all. He merely wishes that her beauty could be passed on to the next generation. He’s so self-sacrificing that he’s willing to be the stud to her mare.

What a guy!

No, human nature does not change. Even the lies we tell ourselves are reruns.

Then she hath sworn that she will still live chaste?

She hath, and in that sparing makes huge waste,
For beauty starved with her severity
Cuts beauty off from all posterity.
She is too fair, too wise, wisely too fair,
To merit bliss by making me despair:
She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow
Do I live dead that live to tell it now.

The only notable difference between Romeo and your stereotypical high school jock looking to bed the girls in the school is this part here. He thinks this is what love is. He’s never experienced true, selfless love; he’s only done what the friar tells him later, and loved first with the eyes.

But that’s not what’s being questioned here, is it? The charge is that Romeo is not just incapable of love, but that he is incapable because he is a young man.

A few scenes later, Romeo has crashed a Capulet party, looking to engage in some mischief, when his life is changed forever by the site of Juliet.

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’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.

Now, does this mean love at first sight? In a reply to my comment below his post, Dr. Cuddeback noted doubts that Shakespeare thought “love at first sight” existed. Now, that’s an interesting question; but certainly, Shakespeare writes over and over about love at first sight, and not just in tragedies where both lovers die by the end. He also wrote about relationships where there were many pains before the lovers admitted their feelings even to themselves.

What matters here is not whether Shakespeare believed in love at first sight; but rather, whether he used it as a literary device. After all, we are examining the play in an effort to prove or disprove the idea that its message is that young men are incapable of love.

Certainly Romeo can perceive a difference between his feelings for Rosaline and Juliet. He’s not simply moving on once rejected. He’s discovering a world of difference between what he had once thought of as love and what he now experiences.

And this is born out in his words. Look at them. Gone are the warlike terms and his belief that the end goal of love is simply spreading one’s good looks to the next generation. He speaks of her as brighter than the very flames that shed the light he sees her by. Rosaline was a beauty to be propagated; Juliet, by contrast, is “too rich for use, for earth too dear!” She cannot be made for this world; she is for another.

Gone too are his beliefs in his own worthiness. His goal with Rosaline was to be the father of her children, regardless of marriage. (Remember, he agreed that beauty must be “hit” soon, with no mention of wedding vows.) With Juliet, his goal isn’t even marriage, nor one ounce of courtship. He simply wishes to hold her hand for a moment, and thereby briefly elevate his own beyond its swordsman’s calluses and other imperfections. His is a hand of mere matter; hers is worthy only of Heaven itself.

He’s gone from decrying Rosaline’s disdain of anything but a chaste life to thinking no one could possibly be worthy of taking Juliet from hers. This is not the reaction of a boy on the rebound. Shakespeare doesn’t do this sort of thing by accident.

And now we come to the key part of the play:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.

This passage is emblematic of the difficulty I alluded to before: the dangers of merely reading a Shakespearean story instead of studying a Shakespearean play. The manner in which it is performed is key. When you merely read the story, you lose the rhythm built into the words; when you perform it with that rhythm, hidden depths are revealed.

These lines, like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, are written in iambic pentameter. Da DA da DA da DA da DA da DA. The emphasis falls on certain words when you do it correctly. Notice: I went to town to get a loaf of bread. Or, since we’re responding to one of my old professors: I took a Cuddeback exam today. There’s more detail to this topic, but it’s beyond the scope of this article; suffice to say that this cadence become important in a moment.

Notice, in the exchange, that Romeo continues using religious terms to describe Juliet. He’s a pilgrim, and she’s a living saint; she must be, because who else could be so radiant? He’s concerned that she’s too fine for him. He has taken her hand, and immediately apologizes; his only way of making it better would be to kiss her hand, a gesture of courtly respect.

Yet she not only forgives the touch, she not only tells him his concerns are baseless — she plays along. If she’s a saint, and he a pilgrim, well then it’s expected that he touch her hands. Here Shakespeare draws on a Christian custom, still employed in an England not yet a century removed from the Church, of touching the hands of a saint’s statue. It’s a practice still performed today by modern Catholics; though the gesture holds no spiritual reality, it still comforts many who seek a physical connection.


Romeo responds to this by saying that both saints and pilgrims (palmers) have lips as well as hands. It seems at first that he’s slipping back into his old ways, seeking to steal a kiss. This seems born out by Juliet’s response, an apparent rebuke, that lips must be used in prayer.

Yet here is where the cadence I mentioned comes in. Aye, pilgrim, lips that must be used in prayer(Yes, that’s two syllables on the same stress. I told you there was more to the rhythm. Maybe I’ll explain that in another article.) When you note the emphases, she’s not rebuking him; she’s inviting him. In their game here, he is the supplicant and she the one being beseeched — the proper role for each — but she has to let him know that it’s okay.

And so she does; he asks for their lips to do what their hands are doing. She responds by reminding him that if she is a living saint, then it is his job to come closer. (It’s the most high-class way of saying kiss me, you fool you’ll ever find.) He does so, and refers to it as if it were absolution, a purging of all his unclean intentions before meeting her. Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.

But here was have yet another layer, one that cannot be seen simply from reading it. Let’s look at the words thus far; and let’s take out who exactly is saying them, so we can see it better.

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

Do you see it?

In the Shakespearean hierarchy of wordsmithing, there are four levels of increasing honor: prose, blank (unrhyming) verse, rhyming verse, and the sonnet. The sonnet is fourteen lines of iambic pentameter in an ABAB/CDCD/EFEF/GG rhyme scheme; three four-line groups capped with a rhyming couplet.

Romeo and Juliet, in their first words with each other, aren’t just sharing rhymes; they’re sharing a sonnet.

To say that Shakespeare did not mean this conversation to be seen as elevated and pivotal is to completely ignore Shakespearean style. Without that style, which even the illiterate masses of the day would recognize when performed but that our modern literate students have a hard time seeing with just words on a page, the entire tale changes.

You see, they continue on for a few more lines, as if beginning another sonnet, only to be interrupted by Juliet’s nurse. It is then that Romeo discovers the love of his life — for yes, we can’t deny that this is love — is the child of his sworn enemy.

It’s important to note that the play begins with a prologue, itself a sonnet, in which we are informed that this romance isn’t going to end happily. This is vital, because otherwise the audience would be looking for the young lovers to somehow save the day. No one in Shakespeare’s own audience would have mistaken this moment, as the second sonnet is interrupted and we discover the nigh-insurmountable barrier between these lovers.

From this point on, the course of love shall not go smooth. It is here, in a moment of literal poetic symbolism, that the tragedy begins.

And so we come at last to the point in Act Two that Dr. Cuddeback quoted, where Friar Lawrence admonishes Romeo for foolish love:

Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? young men’s love then lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.

Here we have the danger I mentioned before: taking the tragedy as if it were a treatise on all romance. After all, if this is Shakespeare’s definitive word on the subject, then why did he also write (in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) that “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind / And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind”? Is the friar automatically a better source of wisdom on the subject than Helena?

The difficulty of taking these lines by themselves is the same of in the other passages we’ve examined so far: it’s a matter of context. Helena is explaining why she cannot fall out of love with someone who treats her so harshly; and the friar is concerned about a boy who has until now always treated love as a physical thing.

When Romeo meets Friar Lawrence, the friar is able to tell that something’s up; he guesses, correctly, that the young man has been out all night, and initially fears that Romeo has succeeded in seducing Rosaline into giving up her maidenhood. He’s relieved to hear that this hadn’t happened, but grows concerned again that Romeo may have just exchanged one lust-filled obsession for another.

Then plainly know my heart’s dear love is set
On the fair daughter of rich Capulet:
As mine on hers, so hers is set on mine;
And all combined, save what thou must combine
By holy marriage: when and where and how
We met, we woo’d and made exchange of vow,
I’ll tell thee as we pass; but this I pray,
That thou consent to marry us to-day.

Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? young men’s love then lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.
Jesu Maria, what a deal of brine
Hath wash’d thy sallow cheeks for Rosaline!
How much salt water thrown away in waste,
To season love, that of it doth not taste!
The sun not yet thy sighs from heaven clears,
Thy old groans ring yet in my ancient ears;
Lo, here upon thy cheek the stain doth sit
Of an old tear that is not wash’d off yet:
If e’er thou wast thyself and these woes thine,
Thou and these woes were all for Rosaline:
And art thou changed? pronounce this sentence then,
Women may fall, when there’s no strength in men.

Thou chid’st me oft for loving Rosaline.

For doting, not for loving, pupil mine.

And bad’st me bury love.

Not in a grave,
To lay one in, another out to have.

I pray thee, chide not; she whom I love now
Doth grace for grace and love for love allow;
The other did not so.

O, she knew well
Thy love did read by rote and could not spell.
But come, young waverer, come, go with me,
In one respect I’ll thy assistant be;
For this alliance may so happy prove,
To turn your households’ rancour to pure love.

Can you see the difference here? The good friar is concerned, but does not deny that Romeo’s feelings are true. He is concerned that Romeo’s plans are too hasty. Notice his warning: “Women may fall, when there’s no strength in men.” How can Romeo be any woman’s loyal husband if he’s flighty enough to not just switch his affections in the course of a day, but to actually exchange engagement vows with someone he just met?

But there’s an important element in Friar Lawrence’s examination. Though he calls Romeo a “waverer,” he’s willing to perform the marriage. Why would any priest so bent on calling a young man to task for loving too easily be so willing to perform a marriage ceremony if he thinks that this is just another flight of fancy? Perhaps it’s that Romeo has gone from simply trying to bed one woman to exchanging vows with another; perhaps it’s something else in Romeo’s appearance and manner, which he had observed at the start of the scene was markedly different from the norm.

And perhaps it’s in that comparison he makes: that he and Rosaline both knew that Romeo was just going through the motions of love and didn’t understand the details. “Thy love did read by rote and could not spell.” Not does read and cannot. He’s using the past tense.

Again, Shakespeare does not do this by accident. This is confirmation — as if we needed it, what with two fourth-wall-breaking choruses so far that tell us that love is happening — that Romeo has changed so much in just a few hours that his mentor and teacher is able to tell the difference in just a short conversation.

Is that realistic? Not hardly. Short engagements are dangerous, much less marrying within a day of meeting each other. (To say nothing of familial hatreds complicating things.) But this is a tragedy; and in a tragedy, you’re supposed to see the train wreck coming. It’s the incidental details that you’re waiting for. You know that the disaster is coming, but not necessarily how.

This play does not pretend to be a how-to on romance; but that is far from saying that it does not describe a romance.

Ultimately, I think the question Dr. Cuddeback started with — Are young men capable of love? — answers itself. Of course they are. I have loved, by which I mean romantic love, five women in my life. The fact that none of them worked out in the end does not preclude the existence of those loves, nor that they are different from the numerous crushes and attractions I have felt over the years. The fact that the first two loves were foolish choices is a description of my lack of maturity; but not a condemnation of my capacity.

Every day, there are new young men falling in love, and others falling out of love. There are only two constants in this. The first is that love exists, and can be felt, and is not constrained by age. The second is that love is also not constrained by maturity.

Romeo & Juliet is a play marked by bad decisions, immaturity, irrational expectations, and the failure of reason to inform action. None of that invalidates that it is also a play about, describing, and containing two characters who are very much in love.

Shakespeare’s plays were never meant to be read in a book; they are to be performed, spoken, acted out, with their truths and double meanings and depths of wisdom laid out with intonation and not simply ink. Like that classmate who was shocked to hear the context for Hamlet’s words, we risk losing the depth of why Shakespeare has endured for four centuries when we treat his plays as just words on a page.


About Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is a traditionally-minded Catholic convert and freelance science fiction and fantasy editor, which means that he's in high demand in a small population. Fortunately, he loves talking about stories. And Catholicism. And history. And philosophy. And lots of other stuff.
This entry was posted in Analysis, Commentary, Fiction, Romance and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Did Romeo Love Juliet?

  1. Emily Pass says:

    This was a fun read. It makes me miss my own university days studying Shakespeare. I remember discussing this very same question when we covered Romeo and Juliet, but I don’t think we came to a conclusion is class so much as we discussed both points of view. I enjoyed your breakdown of the play and I agree with your conclusions. Thanks for the fun post!


Speak now, or forever hold your comment.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s