Themes and Motifs in Romeo and Juliet:

The Marriage of Love and Death

When Capulet's party is breaking up, Juliet sends the Nurse to find out Romeo's name. As the Nurse chases after Romeo, Juliet says, "If he be married. / My grave is like to be my wedding bed" (1.5.135) . She means that if Romeo is married, she will die unmarried, because she will never marry another, but she is also unkowningly foreshadowing her fate, in which her grave does become her wedding bed. [Scene Summary]

In the balcony scene, when Juliet expresses her fear for Romeo's safety, Romeo replies that it's ok if her kinsmen find him, because his "life were better ended by their hate, / Than death prorogued [postponed], wanting of [lacking] thy love" (2.2.77-78). In other words, he'd much rather have her love and die on the spot, than not have her love and die later.

At the end of the same scene, after the lovers have agreed to be married, Romeo says that he's willing to stand there forever and forget that he has any other home, but it's almost dawn, and Juliet tells him that she wants him to go. But not too far: "And yet no further than a wanton's [spoiled child's] bird; / Who lets it hop a little from her hand, / Like a poor prisoner in his twisted gyves [shackles] , / And with a silk thread plucks it back again" (2.2.178-180) . Romeo wishes that he were her bird, and Juliet answers, "Sweet, so would [wish] I: / Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing" (2.2.182-183). "Cherishing" is not only "loving," but the petting and playing that we lavish on beloved pets. Juliet has so much joy in Romeo that she feels that she might just love him to death. [Scene Summary]

Gathering medicinal herbs, the Friar says that before the sun gets too high he must fill "this osier cage [willow basket] of ours / With baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers" (2.3.7-8). Then, as now, poison can be medicine, and medicine can be poison. This fact leads the Friar to a meditation on the nature of nature and man. He says, "The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb; / What is her burying grave that is her womb" (2.3.9-10). In other words, everything that grows, grows from the earth, and everything that grows dies and returns to the earth, so that the earth is both tomb and womb.

Later in the same scene, after Romeo has told Friar Laurence of his love for Juliet, the Friar chides him for so suddenly switching his affections from Rosaline to Juliet. Romeo protests that the Friar "bad'st me bury love," but the Friar shoots back, "Not in a grave, / To lay one in, another out to have" (2.3.83-84). The Friar is afraid Romeo has merely exchanged one infatuation for another, but the image of love as a corpse is grotesque. [Scene Summary]

As Friar Laurence and Romeo are waiting for Juliet, so the wedding can be performed, Friar Laurence says that he hopes everything will turn out well. He believes that this marriage could end the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. Romeo, on the other hand, has no thought for anything except being joined to Juliet, and he says so: "Do thou but close our hands with holy words, / Then love-devouring death do what he dare; / It is enough I may but call her mine" (2.6.6-8). [Scene Summary]

On her wedding night, Juliet impatiently awaits the coming of night and Romeo. She says to the night,

Give me my Romeo; and, when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.        (3.2.21-25)
Some editors print "when he shall die" instead of "when I shall die," but "I" makes perfectly good sense. Juliet believes that when Romeo comes to her in the night he will be with her forever, even after her death, shining like stars in the night.

Later in the same scene, upon learning that Romeo has been banished, Juliet thinks that his absence will kill her. She says, "I'll to my wedding-bed; / And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!" (3.2.136-137). [Scene Summary]

As the dawn brings their wedding-night to a close, Juliet claims that it's still dark, so Romeo doesn't have to leave her just yet. Romeo knows she's indulging in wishful thinking, but he's willing to play along with it. He says that if Juliet will have it so, it's ok if he is captured and dies: "I have more care to stay than will to go: / Come, death, and welcome! Juliet wills it so" (3.5.23-24).

Later in the same scene, after Juliet has severely disappointed her mother by saying that she will not marry Paris, Capulet arrives, expecting to find his daughter joyful at the news that she is to marry Paris. Instead, he finds Juliet in tears, and asks his wife if she has told Juliet the happy news, but his wife replies bitterly, "Ay, sir; but she will none, she gives you thanks. / I would the fool were married to her grave!" (3.5.139-140). A little later, after Capulet has stormed out, Juliet pleads with her mother to help her avoid the marriage to Paris: "O, sweet my mother, cast me not away! / Delay this marriage for a month, a week / Or, if you do not, make the bridal bed / In that dim monument where Tybalt lies" (3.5.198-201). [Scene Summary]

Before Friar Laurence tells Juliet of his plan to have her take a sleeping potion, he asks if she has courage to undergo something like death. He says, "if thou darest, I'll give thee remedy" (4.1.76). Juliet answers that she will do anything rather than marry Paris -- jump from a tower, hide with serpents, be chained with roaring bears. Or, she says, the Friar could,

      hide me nightly in a charnel-house,
O'er-cover'd quite with dead men's rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls;
Or bid me go into a new-made grave
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud;
Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble;
And I will do it without fear or doubt,
To live an unstain'd wife to my sweet love;   (4.1.81-88)
[Scene Summary]

"Hold, take these keys, and fetch more spices, nurse" (4.4.1), says Lady Capulet. So begins the scene in which the Nurse, Lady Capulet, and Capulet bustle about preparing the feast for the wedding of Juliet and Paris. Imaginatively, we are now in the same room where Capulet hosted the feast at which Romeo and Juliet met, but on stage this scene is often played in front of the curtained bed on which Juliet lies. Thus we cannot forget what those on stage do not know--that the wedding they are preparing for will turn into a funeral. [Scene Summary]

Capulet, speaking to Paris, delivers the news of Juliet's (apparent) death to the would-be groom by speaking of her as the bride of Death. He says, "O son! the night before thy wedding-day / Hath Death lain with thy wife. There she lies, / Flower as she was, deflowered by him" (4.5.35-37). To "lie" with a woman is to make love to her, and to make love to a virgin is to "deflower" her. Capulet's metaphor may seem somewhat creepy to us (and not particularly appropriate to his character), but it does foreshadow the fate of Juliet, who dies in a loving embrace with her dead husband.

A little later, trying to quiet the clamor of grief over the (apparent) death of Juliet, Friar Laurence says, "She's not well married that lives married long; / But she's best married that dies married young" (4.5.77-78). Perhaps his idea is that it's better to die before love fades, but it seems a strange thing for him to say. It's rather cold comfort to offer the grieving parents, and the Friar is the only one who knows that Juliet is actually married. [Scene Summary]

In Mantua, Romeo is happy because he is in love, and he expects more happiness because of a dream he had. In the dream, he says, "my lady came and found me dead," but "breathed such life with kisses in my lips, / That I revived, and was an emperor" (5.1.6-9).

A little later Balthasar brings news that Juliet is dead and buried. Romeo immediately decides to join her, sends Balthasar on errands, and says, "Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee to-night" (5.1.34). Romeo is probably using the word "lie" in two senses. He will lie in the grave with her, and he will lie with her as a husband lies with a wife. He's not a necrophiliac; he means that his love is stronger than death. [Scene Summary]

At Juliet's tomb, Paris scatters flowers and says, "Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew,--" (5.3.12). As he does this, it occurs to him that if the grave is Juliet's "bridal bed," then "O woe! thy canopy is dust and stones" (5.3.13).

Later in the same scene, looking at Juliet in the grave, Romeo asks why she is still so beautiful, and thinks that perhaps Death is in love with her and "the lean abhorred monster keeps [preserves] / Thee here in dark to be his paramour" (5.3.104-105). To prevent Death from being Juliet's lover, Romeo will join her. He speaks as though his death is a second wedding ceremony. First he makes his vow, in which he promises to love her forever, not just "until death do us part": "I still [always] will stay with thee; / And never from this palace of dim night / Depart again" (5.3.106-108). Then comes the kissing of the bride. Laying himself down beside Juliet, Romeo bids farewell to his life as he embraces her and death. He says, "Arms, take your last embrace! and, lips, O you / The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss / A dateless [eternal] bargain to engrossing [all-consuming] death!" (5.3.115).