Though the forbidden love between Romeo and Juliet lives at the heart of the play and drives much of its action, their love is only forbidden in the first place due to the “ancient grudge,” or feud, between the noble houses of Capulet and Montague. The source of the age-old fight between the two families is never explained or even hinted at—all that is clear is that these houses loathe each other and will leap at any chance to do violence unto each other, much to the dismay of Verona’s citizens. Romeo and Juliet are bound by duty to honor their respective families, but as their love for one another deepens and their families’ violence towards each other escalates, Shakespeare shows that parents owe their children the duties of respect, openness, and kindness—not exclusively, as the Capulets and Montagues demand, the other way around.
Many of Shakespeare’s works examine the duty children and younger generations within a family owe their parents, or the older generation—in Hamlet, King Lear, and The Merchant of Venice, for example, Shakespeare interrogates filial duty, familial honor, and the difficulties of seeing a parent’s will through. In Romeo and Juliet, however, Shakespeare turns this interrogation on its head. While a child’s honor-bound duty to his or her parent is complex, to say the least, in the world of Hamlet and King Lear, in Romeo and Juliet, it is portrayed outrightly as an absurd, punitive, and even cruel demand. Romeo and Juliet are bound to honor their families’ hatred of one another—when each learns who the other is after falling in love at a party at the Capulets’ home, they are crestfallen to realize that they are enemies by default. Of course, Romeo and Juliet are not, as individuals, each other’s enemies—but the codes of honor their parents have thrust upon them demand that they hate one another simply out of duty. As Romeo and Juliet secretly conspire to shirk that duty, surrender to their love for each other, and marry in great haste, Shakespeare points out the ridiculousness of feuds and grudges like the one between the Capulets and Montagues—ancient resentments whose root cause no one alive can even remember. Shakespeare shows that it is the very fact that Romeo and Juliet’s love is forbidden which spurs their passion—as young teenagers, they long to get in trouble and defy their families, and marrying one another is the ultimate transgression against their parents’ wills.
Shakespeare also points out just how profoundly the Capulets and Montagues fail their children by honoring their desires for social climbing and political advancement. The Capulets are more concerned with throwing gaudy feasts that will draw the envy and attention of all their friends than they are with nurturing their own family. Though Capulet insists that Juliet is the most important thing in his life, it is clear from his behavior that he (and Lady Capulet, as well) are interested only in impressing their fellow citizens, marrying Juliet to a man who will improve their family’s social standing, and keeping under wraps the very scandals and brawls with the Montagues that they themselves stoke. When Juliet fakes her own death and Capulet mourns her loss in loud, ridiculous, florid terms, Friar Laurence chides him for his hypocrisy—while Juliet was alive, “the most [Capulet] sought was her promotion”—now that she is dead and in heaven, the friar points out, she has received the greatest social “promotion” of all. The Montagues, too, are guilty of shirking their duties to their son—Lady Montague is concerned about Romeo being seen brawling in the streets but doesn’t actually bother to keep track of her son’s wellbeing or whereabouts. Montague, too, seems deeply uninterested in learning about Romeo’s inner emotional life—he knows his son is, at the start of the play, struggling with feelings of unrequited love, but has not bothered to get to the heart of his troubles. All of the parents in the play are shown to be more concerned with social appearances and their own petty problems than with honoring their duties to their children—even as they demand their children conform to arbitrary, outdated social mores and back their own feuds mindlessly.
Ultimately, Shakespeare uses the tale of Romeo and Juliet and their “star-crossed love” to show the chaos and devastation that can befall parents who do not listen to or respect their own children. “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,” Prince Escalus orders the Capulets and Montagues at the end of the play. “All are punished.” In believing their children owed it to them to continue sowing the seeds of their own petty hatred, the adults in the play have done their offspring—and their community—a great disservice. Shakespeare clearly believes that familial duty runs both ways, and that in failing to acknowledge that fact, society’s pompous elders will only bring endless woe upon themselves.
Family and Duty ThemeTracker
Family and Duty Quotes in Romeo and Juliet
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows,
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
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;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.
'Tis but thy name that is my enemy; —
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? That which we call a rose,
By any other word would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title: — Romeo, doff thy name;
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
For naught so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good but, strain'd from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on the abuse:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometimes by action dignified.
Romeo, the hate I bear thee can afford
No better term than this: thou art a villain.
Romeo: Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much.
Mercutio: No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but 'tis enough, 'twill serve: ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.
Is there no pity sitting in the clouds
That sees into the bottom of my grief?
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.
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.