Romeo & Juliet:  Romeo

By J. Cooney

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    Romeo and Juliet is one of the most celebrated romantic stories of all time, with Romeo considered to be the quintessential romantic hero.  Upon closer analysis, Romeo can be characterized as a young man transformed by love.  This can be seen in Romeo's initial interest in Rosaline, which is superficial and passive in comparison to the more complex and active relationship he develops with Juliet.

Romeo Pines for Rosaline

Romeo is a free spirited youth of 16 living in 17th century Verona, Italy.  In the beginning of the play, Romeo is pining for Rosaline, the object of his unrequited love.  He spends most of his time sighing over his depressing and virtually nonexistent love life.  Romeo is first mentioned as an aimless wanderer, preoccupied with thoughts of Rosaline.  His father, Montague, describes his doleful manner: "Many a morning hath he been there seen/ With tears augmenting the fresh morning's dew/ Adding clouds to more clouds with his deep sighs" (I, i, 157-9).  His family goes on to discuss what could be wrong with the young man, noting that he is so forlorn that he often sequesters himself in his darkened room.  Such passivity in his approach to love with Rosaline is a theme that recurs until he meets Juliet.
    Rosaline is Romeo's obsession, yet it is in his description of her that his superficial approach to love is revealed.  When describing her to the cynical Benvolio, Romeo's descriptions are vague and generalized, referencing Rosaline's physical beauty and attractiveness.  Rather than articulating why he loves her or offering specifics examples of her uniqueness, he curses the unfairness of unrequited love and alluring beauty: "Show me a mistress that is passing fair, what doth her beauty serve, but as a note/ Where I may read who passed that passing fair" (I, i, 234-6).  Romeo goes on to lament his spurned advances: "She is rich in beauty, only poor/ That, when she dies, with beauty dies her store" (I, i, 215-6).  Unlike the personal connection he later expresses for Juliet, this utterance simply reflects regret for Rosaline's vow of chastity.
    Throughout this play, Romeo's relationship with Rosaline is passive.  He never speaks to her or takes any decisive action to woo his lady love.  He spends his time in anguish, wavering between simplistic adulation and utter despair.  Furthermore, Romeo spends a great deal of time in limbo, mooning over a woman who does not reciprocate his feelings.  Despite Benvolio's urging, the lovesick teen will not move on or consider the merits of other women.
    Romeo follows Rosaline to a party hosted by the Capulet family, sworn enemies to his own.  However, while there, he sulks moodily and refuses to partake in the festivities.  He isolates himself from the merrymaking both socially and physically in his refusal to dance and banter with Mercutio.  Romeo spends his time, not pursuing Rosaline, but despairing: "Under Love's heavy burden I do sink" (I, iv, 22).

Romeo Pursues Juliet

Despite Romeo's great declarations of love for Rosaline, his feelings are actually fleeting, as shown by his behavior when he spies young Juliet.  He is smitten at first sight, describing her as "Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!" (I, v, 49).  This language is in direct contrast to how he speaks of Rosaline.  Rather than objectifying Juliet as he does with Rosaline, he holds Juliet in reverent awe, "Did my heart love till now?  For swear it, sight!/ For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night (I, v54-5).  With this, Rosaline is forgotten and Juliet becomes Romeo's focal point.
    Unlike how he relates to Rosaline, Romeo actively pursues Juliet from the beginning.  Upon meeting, he tries to woo her and win a kiss.  Despite learning Juliet's identity as a Capulet  Romeo ignores the feud and commits himself to Juliet.  When Juliet asks "Art thou not Romeo and Montague?" (II, ii 60), Romeo pledges to deny his lineage to be with his new love and says, "My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself/ Because it is an enemy to thee" (II, ii, 55-6).
    Realizing that their interest in each other is both reciprocal and sincere, Romeo presses Juliet for vows of love.  After they agree to get married, Romeo rushes to Friar Lawrence to ask him to marry the young couple.  To a surprised Lawrence, Romeo says that he has forgotten Rosaline, and "That name's woe" (II, iii 46).  At this point in the play, Romeo and Juliet have only just met and Romeo is already taking steps to ensure their union.  No such intentions for Rosaline are expressed or pursued.

Romeo and Juliet's Relationship Becomes More Complex

After marrying, Romeo's relationship with Juliet becomes even complex and involves many factors other than themselves.  An important moment occurs when Romeo encounters his old enemy Tybalt, who he is now related to by marriage.  The impulsive Romeo attempts to restrain himself in the face of Tybalt's taunting, because he considers the new connection that they share.  Unfortunately, Romeo eventually responds to Tybalt's challenge and kills him in a fight.
    For this murder, Romeo is banished to Mantua and separated from his new bride.  When he receives word, mistakenly, that Juliet is dead, Romeo is devastated and immediately decides to join her.  Romeo finds Juliet's seemingly lifeless body in the tomb and says, "I will stay with thee and never from this palace of dim night/ Depart again" (V, iii 106-7).  With that, Romeo kills himself by ingesting poison.  Committing suicide is Romeo's final and most profound act in his pursuit of Juliet.
    Romeo truly is a tragic and romantic figure.  However, he begins as a young man entangled in his own superficial notions of love.  His interest in Rosaline is fleeting, passive, and non reciprocal.  It is through his relationship with Juliet that Romeo becomes a more active character who is capable of being involved in a complex romantic relationship.

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