Themes and Motifs in Romeo and Juliet:

Youth and Age

After setting the scene and telling us that the lovers will die, the Chorus calls their fate "piteous" and tells us what we're going to see: "The fearful passage of their death-mark'd love, / And the continuance of their parents' rage, / Which, but their children's end, nought could remove, / Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage" (Prologue, 12). A great part of our pity arises from seeing the children's lives sacrificed to their parents' anger. [Scene Summary]

When the fight between the Capulet and Montague servants develops into a riot, both Capulet and Montague want to join in, even though they are both too old for such nonesense. Capulet calls for his sword, but gets only sarcasm from his wife: "A crutch, a crutch! why call you for a sword?" (1.1.76). Capulet replies, "My sword, I say! Old Montague is come, / And flourishes his blade in spite of me" (1.1.78). It may be possible that "Old Montague" is just Capulet's way of designating the head of the Montague clan. It's much more likely that he -- who has more need of a crutch than a sword -- is using "old" as an insult.

Moments later Prince Escalus puts a stop to the riot, then addresses an angry speech to Capulet and Montague. First the Prince says, "Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word, / By thee, old Capulet, and Montague, / Have thrice disturb'd the quiet of our streets . . . " (1.1.89-91). The fued between these two old men has "made Verona's ancient citizens / Cast by their grave beseeming ornaments, / To wield old partisans, in hands as old, / Canker'd with peace, to part your canker'd hate" (1.1.92-95). A "grave beseeming ornament" of an ancient citizen would be a staff of office. The Capulet-Montague feud has kept the ancient citizens from enjoying the respect they have earned. Instead, the ancient citizens have had to take up weapons of war ("partisans") which have grown rusty ("cankered") in peacetime, in order to separate ("part") the two sides and their malignant ("cankered") hate for each other. Prince Escalus believes the old should be wise, but old people have been drawn into the brawl by old Capulet and Montague, and the Prince lectures them like children. [Scene Summary]

Capulet says to Paris, "But Montague is bound as well as I, / In penalty alike; and 'tis not hard, I think, / For men so old as we to keep the peace (1.2.1-3). It seems that he has just returned from his conference with Prince Escalus, and he's saying that he and Montague have been threatened with the same penalities if they disturb the peace. Now he's trying to convince himself that it shouldn't be too hard for two old men to keep peace with each other. Then Paris asks for Juliet's hand in marriage, and a discussion of youth ensues.

Capulet tells Paris that Juliet is very young, still "a stranger in the world" (1.2.8), and not yet fourteen. He urges Paris to wait two more years before he thinks of marrying her, but Paris says, "Younger than she are happy mothers made" (1.2.12), to which Capulet retorts, "And too soon marr'd are those so early made" (1.2.13). Nevertheless Capulet urges Paris to woo Juliet, and invites him to a feast that night. His invitation reveals what he thinks it should mean for a young man to be young. He tells Paris he will see many beautiful ladies at the feast, which should make him happy:

Such comfort as do lusty young men feel
When well-apparell'd April on the heel
Of limping winter treads, even such delight
Among fresh female buds shall you this night
[find] at my house; hear all, all see,
And like her most whose merit most shall be:
Which on more view of many, mine, being one,
May stand in number, though in reckoning none.  (1.2.26-33)
Capulet's message is that Paris, who is still in the April of his life, should appreciate the fresh beauty of the ladies, look at others besides Juliet, and think about the "merit" of them all. In other words (although Capulet only implies this), Paris shouldn't be in any great hurry to rush into marriage and adulthood, dragging Juliet with him. [Scene Summary]

Working up to the subject of marriage, Lady Capulet says to the Nurse, in Juliet's presence, "Thou know'st my daughter's of a pretty age" (1.3.10). Juliet is pretty, but that's not what Lady Capulet means. She's using the word "pretty" in the same way we use it in phrases such as "pretty big" or "pretty good." Lady Capulet thinks that Juliet is old enough to get married and wants to talk about that, but the Nurse starts chattering about baby Juliet.

This chatter, rambling and humorous, emphasizes Juliet's extreme youth, and it focuses on the subject of growing up. The Nurse vividly remembers Juliet's first milestone, her weaning. She had put a bitter concoction on her nipple to teach little Juliet that her nursing days were over. What happened next was very cute: "When it [Juliet] did taste the wormwood on the nipple / Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool, / To see it [Juliet] tetchy and fall out with the dug!" (1.3.32). To "fall out" meant then what it still means today, to have a quarrel with a friend. So Juliet's old friend, the Nurse's "dug," was suddenly bitter and "it" (Juliet -- only infants and toddlers were called "it") fussed and made faces at its old friend the dug. It's apparent baby Juliet didn't much like growing up.

Then the Nurse goes on to tell how Juliet fell down and got a bump on her forehead. The Nurse's husband picked her up and made a joke, which three-year-old Juliet made even better: "'Yea,' quoth he, 'dost thou fall upon thy face? / Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit; / Wilt thou not, Jule?' and, by my holidame, / The pretty wretch left crying and said 'Ay'"   (1.3.47). A woman would "fall backward" to have sex, but of course little Juliet didn't know that, so when she said "Ay" it was hilarious to the Nurse in a truth-out-of-the-mouths-of-babes kind of way. Thus baby Juliet says something true about grown-up Juliet, but without having the slightest idea of what it means.

All of this is followed by Lady Capulet asking Juliet what she thinks about getting married. Though she's no longer a baby, Juliet's reply is all childish innocence: "It is an honor that I dream not of" (1.3.66). Lady Capulet replies, "Well, think of marriage now; younger than you, / Here in Verona, ladies of esteem, / Are made already mothers" (1.3.69-71). If Juliet marries Paris she will be transformed from a child to a mother and join the adult company of "ladies of esteem." [Scene Summary]

When Romeo and his friends appear in masks at Capulet's feast, Capulet welcomes them, perhaps because the sight of the maskers summons up fond memories for him. He says to his kinsman, "I have seen the day / That I have worn a visor and could tell / A whispering tale in a fair lady's ear, / Such as would please: 'tis gone, 'tis gone, 'tis gone" (1.5.21-24). Capulet means that when he was young, he also put on a mask, crashed a party, danced a turn, and flirted. Now that time is gone, but he's happy to see these young men doing as he did in his youth.

A little later in the scene Capulet uses Tybalt's youth against him. When Tybalt says that he cannot endure Romeo's presence, Capulet replies, "He shall be endured: / What, goodman boy! I say, he shall: go to; / Am I the master here, or you? go to" (1.5.76-78). Sputtering with anger, he calls Tybalt "boy" and sneers "you'll be the man!" (1.5.81). [Scene Summary]

After Romeo has jumped the garden wall, Mercutio teases him by calling out, "Speak to my gossip Venus one fair word, / One nick-name for her purblind [dim-sighted] son and heir, / Young Abraham Cupid, he that shot so trim, / When King Cophetua loved the beggar-maid!" (2.1.11-14). In the Bible Abraham is old, the father of all the Israelites. Thus Mercutio's phrase for Cupid, "Young Abraham," is an allusion to the fact that in Greek mythology Cupid is both the oldest and youngest of the gods. Mercutio's mockeries are his way of telling Romeo that although the lover may think his love-longing is a whole new experience, it's actually very common and very old. [Scene Summary]

Seeing Romeo up very early in the morning, Friar Laurence says to him, "Young son, it argues a distemper'd [disturbed, confused] head / So soon to bid good morrow to thy bed" (2.3.34). The Friar also says that an old man, who naturally has many worries, finds it hard to sleep, "But where unbruised youth with unstuff'd brain [i.e.,not stupid, but carefree] / Doth couch his limbs, there golden sleep doth reign" (2.3.37-38). Therefore he concludes that Romeo has awakened early because something is bothering him. [Scene Summary]

When the Nurse, sent by Juliet to learn Romeo's plan for their wedding, approaches Mercutio, Benvolio, and Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio make fun of her, especially Mercutio. One of the things Mercutio finds ridiculous about the Nurse is that she's old, and as he leaves the scene he calls out "Farewell, ancient lady; farewell" (2.4.143).

In the same scene the Nurse expresses worry that Romeo might be trying to take advantage of Juliet's youthful innocence and says to him, "the gentlewoman is young; and, therefore, if you should deal double with her, truly it were an ill thing to be offered to any gentlewoman, and very weak dealing" (2.4.167-170). However, when she is sure that Romeo really does intend marriage, the Nurse is very happy, and almost goes off on a story about when Juliet was "a little prating thing" (2.4.200). [Scene Summary]

Waiting for the Nurse to return with the news of when and where Romeo will marry her, Juliet impatiently declares, "she is lame!" (2.5.4). Juliet doesn't mean that the Nurse is crippled, just stiff and slow. But, Juliet says, "Love's heralds should be thoughts, / Which ten times faster glide than the sun's beams" (2.5.4-5). Juliet wants the joy of Love to come to her now, even as she is thinking about it, instead of waiting for the slow Nurse, who can't possibly care as much as Juliet does, because the Nurse is old. If she weren't old, "Had she affections and warm youthful blood, / She would be as swift in motion as a ball; / My words would bandy her to my sweet love, / And his to me" (2.5.12-15), but the Nurse is one of the "old folks -- many feign as they were dead; / Unwieldy, slow, heavy and pale as lead" (2.5.16-17). Just as Juliet finishes saying these words, the Nurse appears, then proceeds to tease Juliet by complaining about her aches and pains instead of delivering the news from Romeo. Thus the Nurse, who is really very eager to see Juliet married and in bed with Romeo, pretends to be exactly the kind of old person about whom Juliet has just complained. [Scene Summary]

Learning he has been banished from Verona and Juliet, Romeo falls into a wild despair. Friar Laurence tries to give him some good advice, but Romeo rejects the advice, saying, "Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel" (3.3.64). Romeo tells the Friar that "Wert thou as young as I, Juliet thy love, / An hour but married, Tybalt murdered, / Doting like me and like me banished, / Then mightst thou speak" (3.3.65-68). Romeo doesn't say that the Friar's lack of youth is the only reason he doesn't have a right to speak, but Romeo does seem to feel that the old can't possibly understand the young. [Scene Summary]

Juliet's opposition to the marriage with Paris enrages her father. He says many terrible things to her, including scornful references to her youth. Threatening to disown her, he says, "Hang thee, young baggage! disobedient wretch! / I tell thee what: get thee to church o' Thursday, / Or never after look me in the face" (3.5.160-162). He also says that it makes him mad "to have a wretched puling [whimpering] fool, / A whining mammet [baby doll], in her fortune's tender, / To answer 'I'll not wed; I cannot love, / I am too young; I pray you, pardon me'" (3.5.183-186). As Capulet sees it, Juliet is "in her fortune's tender" because right now is the moment when good fortune is offering everything to her. And for her to refuse her good fortune because she is too young is just stupid, self-indulgent childishness. As a matter of fact, Juliet never said she was "too young"; perhaps Capulet is reversing the guilt he might feel for marrying her off at such a young age. [Scene Summary]

Capulet and his wife are summoned by a watchman, then hear cries of "Juliet" and "Romeo" in the street as they come to the funeral monument of their family. There they find the bodies of Romeo and Juliet. Lady Capulet says, "O me! this sight of death is as a bell, / That warns my old age to a sepulchre" (5.3.206-207). It looks like she means that "this sight of death" reminds her that she, too, must die. However, the word "warn," in Shakespeare's time, could mean "to tell someone when it is time to do something." If that is the sense in which Lady Capulet is using the word, then she means that "this sight of death" tells her that it is time for her to die. In either case, it appears that she feels that it's not right for the young to be dead while she, who is old, lives on.

The same idea, that it's unnatural for the young to die before the old, makes another appearance when Montague arrives at Juliet's tomb. He says to Prince Escalus, "Alas, my liege, my wife is dead to-night; / Grief of my son's exile hath stopp'd her breath: / What further woe conspires against mine age?" (5.3.210-212). His son is exiled, his wife is dead, another woe might kill him, old as he is. Then, looking on his dead son, Montague says, "O thou untaught! what manners is in this? / To press before thy father to a grave?" (5.3.214-215). Montague feels that death would be a blessing, and that Romeo is untaught and unmannerly to take that blessing before his father does. [Scene Summary]