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Romeo Montague, hero or wimp?

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Romeo Montague, hero or wimp?
He's the hero of the play, but on the surface he doesn't seem too heroic. He starts out in love with one girl (Rosaline), decides he likes another one better (Juliet), marries her but doesn't let anyone know about it, gets his best friend killed (Mercutio), kills his wife's cousin (Tybalt), runs off, returns, kills his wife's suitor (Paris), thinks his wife is dead, doesn't check, and commits suicide. Nice going, Romeo.
What kind of hero is this?
To understand Romeo and why he is heroic, listen very closely to his speech. The poetic language that Shakespeare uses for Romeo is the key to his character and the ideals that he represents. Though he can banter with Mercutio, Romeo is not a "good-time guy." He is much more soulful and speaks from his heart. The poetry of his speech reveals his sincerity, passion, and commitment.
Love is Romeo's primary motivation and the driving force behind most of his actions. Even before he arrives onstage, Romeo is preceded by his reputation as a lover. Old Montague and Benvolio discuss Romeo and describe his odd behavior — his tears, his sighs, his insomnia, and his nighttime wanderings. When he makes his appearance, Romeo explains what his problem is: he is lovesick.


Ay me! Sad hours seem so long.

Was that my father that went hence so fast?


It was. What sadness lengthens Romeo's hours?


Not having that which, having, makes them short.


In love?


Out --


Of love?


Out of her favor, where I am in love.


Alas, that love, so gentle in his view,

Should be so tyrannous and rough in proof!


Why is Romeo so lovesick? It's because Rosaline, the current object of his affections doesn't return his feelings. He launches into a speech, that verifies his lovesickness, and more importantly gives insight into Romeo's character.

Paradoxical Romeo


Alas, that love, whose view is muffled still,

Should, without eyes, see pathways to his will!

Where shall we dine? O me! What fray was here?

Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.

Here's much to do with hate, but more with love.

Why, then, O brawling love, O loving hate,

O anything, of nothing first create,

O heavy lightness, serious vanity,

Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,

Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,

Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!

This love feel I, that feel no love in this.

Dost thou not laugh?


He describes his love in a series of paradoxes: heavy lightness, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health. The most striking of these pairings are his couplings of "brawling love" and "loving hate" (1.1.176).

These paradoxes serve two purposes. In the context of the plot, they demonstrate Romeo's confused state of mind. He seems to be speaking in riddles. How can love be described as brawling and juxtaposed with hate? The language makes Romeo seem crazy and the audience wonders, "Is this guy for real?" Consequently, they question, "Is this love (for Rosaline) for real?"
The pairing of "brawling love, loving hate" stops the reader. Is there some truth about love in this contradiction? Romeo, who is motivated by love, is about to experience a whole new range of emotions in his love for Juliet. His new love exists alongside hatred, namely — the brawling hatred between the Montagues and the Capulets. This speech, though it seems confused, offers a reality check. Watch out! This Romeo may be a lot more than he seems.
What About Rosaline?

How can Romeo fall in love with Juliet instantly? Wasn't he head-over-heels for Rosaline the day before? How fickle is he?

Rosaline and Juliet are both at the Capulet ball and therein lies the answer. Once Romeo sees Juliet, the true love he feels for her completely overwhelms his obsession for Rosaline.

Bottom line: when it's real, it's unmistakable. The weepy, creepy Romeo who pined for Rosaline is gone. In his place is a new, better, bolder Romeo. He knows what love is, and nothing is going deter him.

After he crashes the Capulet ball and boldly kisses Juliet, Romeo is ready to pursue her full throttle.


Can I go forward when my heart is here?

Turn back, dull earth, and find thy center out.


Here Romeo refers to himself as "dull earth," a being that is lifeless and requires its center — Juliet — to feel alive. Consequently, he scales the orchard wall to see her again. This act demonstrates his bravery. The threats of danger and death (the penalty for being caught in enemy territory) do not deter him from his pursuit.

When he reaches the Capulet orchard and sees Juliet at her balcony, Romeo demonstrates more about what really makes him tick. He's a wordsmith but he isn't feeding Juliet a line. Romeo's language is Juliet's (and the audience's) guide to his character. His expression of love contains Romeo's finest spoken poetry and illustrates his ardor.


But, soft, what light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,

Who is already sick and pale with grief

That thou her maid are far more fair than she.


He sees Juliet as light and calls her "the sun." He claims that even the moon, the traditional symbol for a woman's beauty and purity, is envious of Juliet. This characterization is not merely dramatic. The use of these superlatives is meant to convey Romeo's deep feeling.

Moon Imagery

Allusions to the moon are not uncommon in a tribute to a woman at this time. The moon was associated with Diana, the huntress and virgin goddess of the moon. Young maidens were often praised for chastity and purity, and were compared to Diana and the moon.

Moreover, since the position and appearance of the moon change all the time, the moon was viewed as something inconstant or changeable. Juliet later tells Romeo, "O, swear not by the moon, th' inconstant moon," (2.2.109). It is not trustworthy.
When Romeo describes Juliet as "the sun" (2.2.3), he chooses the best image for her. Unlike the cold, inconstant moon, Juliet is the radiant sun that illumines the heavens.
When compared to his earlier characterization of Rosaline, Romeo's tribute to Juliet takes on even more significance. Examine the difference between what Romeo says of Rosaline and what he says in the "But soft" speech about Juliet.
Speech About Rosaline


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 uncharm'd.

She will not stay the siege of loving terms,

Nor bide th' encounter of assailing eyes,

Nor ope her lap to saint-seducing gold.

O, she is rich in beauty, only poor,

That, when she dies, with beauty dies her store.

His characterization of Rosaline commences with the traditional comparison to Diana. Romeo acknowledges that Rosaline is "rich in beauty" (1.1.215) and that her beauty is defined in terms of her chastity. It's part of her appeal to Romeo. Romeo values Rosaline because she will not satisfy his desires; therefore, he thinks of her beauty as lost to "all posterity" (1.1.220).
However, when he describes Juliet and invokes the sun, he suggests something far more potent: the eternal source of light and life-giving force of the heavens. Juliet's beauty and warmth will live forever and do not depend upon Romeo's perceptions. She exists independently of Romeo, and when Romeo thinks of Juliet, he dwells on her and not on what she will do for him.

Romeo's language demonstrates that although he was infatuated with Rosaline; he has no mere crush on Juliet. He is deeply in love, and the depth of his feelings demonstrates Romeo's maturation.

Romeo the Dreamer

Romeo has two dreams that he reports. The first is a warning not to attend the Capulet ball. He ignores this warning and chooses to do what he pleases. Going to the ball brings Juliet into his life and starts the action of the story.

In act 5, scene 1, Romeo describes another dream:


I dreamt my lady came and found me dead —

Strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think! —

And breath'd such life with kisses in my lips

That I reviv'd and was an emperor.

Ah me, how sweet is love itself possess'd,

When but love's shadows are so rich in joy!


The dream foreshadows Romeo's death, but he seems powerless to prevent the tragedy. He mistakenly believes that this is a joyous dream fueled by the strength of his love.

However, is it possible to explain this dream positively. Romeo does have some insight here. Because he does becomes an emperor in two senses. Prior to drinking the potion, Romeo says that he will.


set up my everlasting rest,

And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars

From this world-wearied flesh.


In death, he is able to become an "emperor," free of the burden of his fate and free to love Juliet eternally.

In his death, Romeo also "reigns" as the emperor of a peaceful Verona. Romeo's love and death prompt the Montagues and Capulets to end the feud and erect golden statues of Romeo and Juliet as tributes to their lives.

Ultimately, love and death do revive Romeo and he becomes the "emperor" of all eternity unfettered by fortune, families, and feuds. Is the difference between Romeo's two dreams the difference between a fickle boy infatuated with any girl he sees and a mature man who truly loves the woman of his dreams?
Yet, it is not just in his ability to love that Romeo manifests growth. Think back on Romeo's speech about "brawling love" and "loving hate" and guess where else his character demonstrates maturity.
Is it surprising that killing and death are keys to his character? Though motivated by love, Romeo is also the man who kills two people in the play. When he tries to separate the brawling Mercutio and Tybalt, Romeo actually prevents Mercutio from defending himself. The result of Romeo's intervention? Tybalt kills Mercutio, and Romeo kills Tybalt in revenge. Romeo's mistake is that he naively believes that can stop the fighting. His decision to slay Tybalt in retaliation is rash and ill-conceived.
When Romeo learns that he is banished from Verona for killing Tybalt, he is not grateful for the Prince's leniency. Just married an hour and already missing his bride, Romeo takes the news very badly. He equates the banishment with a death sentence and bemoans his fate. His utmost concern is for himself and what he will be missing when he leaves Verona; he does not dwell on the fact that he has murdered a man.

However, the death that Romeo causes at the end of the play is under quite different circumstances. It is not rash, and Romeo is instantly contrite that has killed Paris. He kill Paris not for revenge, but because Paris is barring him from entering the Capulet tomb. He begs Paris to retreat and warns him of the danger. In essence he says, "I have no quarrel with you. Don't get in my way, because I'm here to kill myself." He does not wish to murder an innocent man and he tries to reason with Paris.

Conversation With Paris


for thou must die.


I must indeed, and therefore came I hither.

Good gentle youth, tempt not a desp'rate man.

Fly hence and leave me. Think upon these gone;

Let them affright thee. I beseech thee, youth,

Put not another sin upon my head

By urging me to fury. O, be gone!

By heaven, I love thee better than myself,

For I come hither arm'd against myself.

Stay not, be gone; live, and hereafter say

A madman's mercy bid thee run away.


I do defy thy commination,

And apprehend thee for a felon here.


Wilt thou provoke me? Then have at thee, boy!


What word does Romeo repeat?

Twice he calls Paris "youth" and just prior to killing him, Romeo refers to Paris as "boy" (5.3.70) Conversely, he calls himself a "man" (5.3.59). The play does not suggest that Paris is younger than Romeo. To the contrary, it is more likely that Paris is at least a little older than Romeo since Paris was pursuing a bride and sought out Juliet's father for a man-to-man talk.
Has Romeo sufficiently matured to call himself a man? Certainly, he handles this killing much differently from his slaying of Tybalt. In Romeo, Shakespeare introduces a boyish character who is in puppy-love and kills for revenge. In the short span of the play — a mere four days — Romeo experiences a lifetime of emotions. He ceases to put himself first, finds the courage to carry out difficult actions, and proves himself to be true to his commitments. He grows to be a man of convictions and is therefore a worthy hero of this story.

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