Oh Romeo, Romeo

A lot of students ask me about this play, about Romeo and Juliet. Most teachers focus on Romeo rather than Juliet, and – maybe rightly – they see the two as ‘star-crossed lovers’. Given all the press, you can see why.

Your tune for this Dire Straits’ cover by the Killers with Romeo and Juliet. I’d say that this is the public view of Romeo. He loves Juliet with his whole heart. He loves her like the stars above. He’ll love her til he dies.

But there’s something not right about Romeo if you ask me. Juliet, she’s a different story.

So why is it I’ve got such a bee in my bonnet about Romeo?

From the beginning, he’s in love. For anyone familiar with Elizabethan sonnets, it’s pretty clear. Well, I say he’s in love. It seems more like it’s pain. Now, before I get into the play, read this sonnet by Sir Thomas Wyatt.


I FIND no peace, and all my war is done ;
I fear and hope, I burn, and freeze like ice ;
I fly aloft, yet can I not arise ;
And nought I have, and all the world I seize on,
That locks nor loseth, holdeth me in prison,
And holds me not, yet can I scape no wise :
Nor lets me live, nor die, at my devise,
And yet of death it giveth me occasion.
Without eye I see ; without tongue I plain :
I wish to perish, yet I ask for health ;
I love another, and thus I hate myself ;
I feed me in sorrow, and laugh in all my pain.
Lo, thus displeaseth me both death and life,
And my delight is causer of this strife.

So, in essence, love is pain. Love makes him want to die, but it keeps him alive. It imprisons him and it feeds him on sorrow. Sir Thomas Wyatt is the man credited with bringing sonnets to Italy. His poems were published about six or seven years before Shakespeare was born, and sonnet writing was a passion and a fashion at the time. This sonnet in turn is competely stolen from the granddaddy of all sonnets, Petrarch. If you look at Petrarch’s sonnet Pace non trovo, e non ho da far guerra, it’s almost a word-for-word translation.

And yet, here’s Romeo with all his oxymorons (which fox everyone because, sure, he uses them, but why?)

The first time we hear of Romeo is way into Act 1. He’s mooning about. Benvolio, Lady Montague and Montague are discussing Romeo. How they don’t know what’s up with him is anyone’s guess. It’s like a conversation that goes:

“Have you seen Bert?”

“Yes, I saw him down the doctor’s. He had a bag from the chemist and he was coughing and sneezing. No idea what’s up with him.”

It’s so obvious what’s up with Romeo that it’s almost funny no-one realises. Lady Montague starts it off, asking Benvolio if he’s seen Romeo.

Benvolio says:

Madam, a hour before the worshipped sun

Peered forth the golden window of the east,

A troubled mind drove me to walk abroad,

Where underneath the grove of sycamore…

So early walking did I see your son;

Essentially, then, Romeo has been wandering around town in the middle of the night. The first clue is ‘sycamore’. This is important. It’s not oak, or willow, or just trees. It’s sycamore. Sick-amor. Sick of love. Wandering around, unable to sleep, in among the sycamores. Sounds a little tortured, no?

Not only that, but when he saw Benvolio, he ran away into the forest. He doesn’t want to talk to even his closest cousin.

That in itself isn’t the really obvious bit. It’s what Montague says about his son.

Many a morning hath he there been seen,

With tears augmenting the fresh morning’s dew,

Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs,

But all so soon as the all-cheering sun

Should in the farthest east begin to draw

The shady curtains from Aurora’s bed,

Away from light steals home my heavy son,

And private in his chamber pens himself,

Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out,

And makes himself an artificial night:

So, Romeo is moping about, mooning about, crying, lounging around in dark rooms, shutting the daylight out. Behaving like a typically lovesick teen if you ask me. Think emo boy listening to some sad emo music. Don’t you want to shake him and tell him to man up?

So, before we even meet Romeo, he’s mooning about like a typical love-sick teenager. I guess, had you not seen the play, you’d even think this was Juliet he was mooning about over. Not so. It is some other girl. Some Rosaline.

Next time, we’ll look at what Romeo actually says and how this reveals his striking similarity to the words from the sonnets. And hopefully I can tell you a little more about how I for one am just not convinced by Romeo’s behaviour.