When Romeo and Juliet fall in love, their individual desire for each other—which flies in the face of their families’ “ancient grudge” and thus the social order of Verona, a city run by noble families like the Montagues and Capulets—places them in direct opposition with the society of which they’re both a part. As Romeo and Juliet fall deeper and deeper in love, they come up against their friends, their families, and the political and religious authorities which govern the city of Verona. Throughout the play, Shakespeare uses the tragedy which befalls Romeo and Juliet—both teenagers and effectively children—in order to argue that the sociopolitical constraints and demands of many societies ignore or actively agitate their most vulnerable members.
Shakespeare’s England—and the Europe of his day more largely—was a place of rampant and profound social inequity. Romeo and Juliet takes place in Italy during the High Middle Ages, during which time the nation was made up of several warring city-states in which a handful of noble families enjoyed luxury and refinement while the peasant class—the majority of the population—struggled and suffered in obscurity. In light of this historical context, many contemporary scholars look at Romeo and Juliet’s relatively trivial struggle—two pampered teenagers lamenting their wealthy parents’ petty feud, threatening suicide should anything stand in the way of their love, and ultimately winding up dead as a result of narrowly-missed communications—as being a difficult story to empathize with or relate to. However, when Romeo and Juliet are viewed as stand-ins for the members of society whose cries, shouts, threats, and pains are repeatedly ignored because of the squabbling and in-fighting of its wealthiest tier, the play takes on a new significance which examines the plight of put-upon individuals struggling to survive in a society which discounts their needs. Romeo and Juliet are, the play suggests, merely children. Juliet is said to be only 13, and though Romeo is of indeterminate age, he is not yet at university and cannot be too much older than his lady love. Romeo and his friends—all young men of noble standing—have been taught that it is their duty to defend the honor of their house against their enemies, the Capulets, even as the monarch of Verona, Prince Escalus, threatens both clans with execution every time their brawls spill into the streets. Juliet has been told that she must marry well in order to bring honor to her family—but the feelings of love and desire she develops independently are discounted and ignored as her parents push a union with the haughty, older Paris onto her. Thus, both Romeo and Juliet are, throughout the play, constant pulled between serving their individual desires and preserving the peace and status quo within the larger society of which they are a part.
A gentler, more compassionate reading of the play, then, allows for the possibility that Shakespeare did want his audiences to take Romeo and Juliet’s story—and the allegory it represents—rather seriously. Their individual needs are steamrolled by pressure from their families, their governing bodies, and their society more largely. In order to keep up appearances and uphold a false idea of “peace,” they must sublimate their desires, seek secret answers to their problems, and thusly involve others in their problems, often to the endangerment of those from whom they beg help. Friar Laurence, Romeo’s servant Balthasar, Juliet’s nurse, Tybalt, Mercutio, and countless servingmen and citizens of Verona all find themselves swept up in the chaos Romeo and Juliet’s ill-fated romance creates—all because Romeo and Juliet are operating within a society more concerned with projecting civility and upholding outdated social codes than making concessions for its individual members.
Romeo and Juliet live in a society in which gentility, manners, and privacy are stringently enforced in the name of maintaining peace and calm for the larger collective. In reality, however, the illusion of Verona’s genteel, peaceful exterior only serves to cover up the chaos within—chaos created by a collection of unhappy individuals who long to change the status quo. In showing how societies at every level—governmental, religious, cultural, and interpersonal—seek to ignore the needs of the few to sate the demands of the many, Shakespeare suggests that individual success and happiness in such a society is impossible unless that society begins reckoning with the needs of its individual members.
Individuals vs. Society ThemeTracker
Individuals vs. Society 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.
Abraham: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
Sampson: I do bite my thumb, sir.
Abraham: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
Sampson (to Gregory): Is the law of our side if I say ay?
Sampson: No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you sir; but I bite my thumb, sir.
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.
Come, gentle night, — come, loving black brow'd night,
Give me my Romeo; and when he 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.
Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierc'd the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree.
Believe me love, it was the nightingale.
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.
O true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick. — Thus with a kiss I die.
Yea, noise, then I'll be brief;
O, happy dagger!
This is thy sheath; there rest, and let me die.