Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is a tragedy about love. But, more specifically it is a tragedy about young love. Shakespeare presents both he characters of Juliet and Romeo as being particularly young and youthful. But he gives each of them different characteristics that form this picture. These characteristics are often contrasting, but all build up the picture that emphasises the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet: that the love they experience is so short-lived, and they die so early in their lives.
Juliet has an undoubtable youthful innocence about her. She is only just coming towards the verge of woman-hood. In many ways she is still a child at the outset of the play. At the beginning of the play her father, Capulet, asserts this to Paris her potential suitor, saying: “My child is yet a stranger in the world, / She hath not yet seen the change of fourteen years;” (1.2.8-9). When Lady Capulet enters with the intention of expressing her desire to see Juliet marry Paris, Nurse reminisces of some sweet thing Juliet did as a small three-year-old child, emphasising that not much time at all has passed between then and the present moment: “And since that time it is eleven years,” (1.3.37).
Juliet’s youth is also emphasised through her obedience, or expected and apparent obedience to her parents. When Lady Capulet urges Juliet to look upon Paris to see if she can love him, Juliet acquiesces, saying: “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move” (1.3.99), but she will not look any further than Lady Capulet bids her to. Juliet doesn’t believe she could possibly fall in love with Paris just by looking at him, but she agrees to look anyway because it is her mother’s wish.
This expected obedience is further emphasised when Capulet later changes his mind from saying that Juliet is too young to marry. He then says to Paris that he is sure of Juliet’s obedience to her father should he bid her to marry Paris. When Juliet expresses her protestations to her mother, Lady Capulet dares her to tell her father of her desire to disobey him. Lady Capulet is also sure that Juliet is incapable of disobeying her parents’ orders. Capulet goes so far as to begin to organise the wedding for the coming Thursday. He is so certain of Juliet’s agreement that he doesn’t even wait to see if it actually comes forth. The expectation of her obedience is so strong that Juliet has no choice but to obey. If she were to go against her parents’ will she would be thrown out.
Juliet’s youth, and subsequent and particularly sexual innocence is also something Shakespeare makes a point of. Juliet’s youth means that she has no sexual or romantic experience. During what has come to be known as the ‘balcony scene’ Juliet worries that Romeo may just be trying to take advantage of her innocence. Similarly, later on the Nurse tells Romeo it would be un-gentlemanly of him to take advantage of a young girl. Juliet is also innocent when it comes to love and passion. She tells her mother she doesn’t expect she can fall in love with Paris just by looking at him. But by the end of the party, she has fallen in love at her first sight of Romeo.
Throughout the play, Juliet grows as a person. The loss of her innocence, both emotionally and sexually, assists this and she passes into what seems to be the beginning of her womanhood. Juliet becomes a lot more street smart with regard to the adults around her during this time. Juliet meets Paris when she goes to see Friar Laurence, and she skilfully wards off his advances while giving the appearance of just being coy. She is smart enough to play on her own innocence and use it as a tool. Similarly, when Juliet repents to her father for her disobedience, she says exactly what she knows he wants to hear. She has learned what her parents expect from her, and she uses this knowledge to her advantage.
Juliet also has a level of maturity that surpasses her years. Her capacity to love with such an intense passion is a factor of this maturity. But while she loves with passion Juliet does not act hastily, she plans. Juliet spends some time in the play protesting her impatience at having to wait, both for Nurse and for Romeo. But she does actually wait; she does not act with the impatience she feels. Juliet matures, but Shakespeare presents her in a way that still reminds the audience of her youth.
With regard to Romeo, Shakespeare presents the lovers’ youth in a different way. Romeo is a love-sick puppy who appears to have had a constant string of youthful infatuations. He is the ultimate brooding and melancholy teenage boy. Both his parents and friends worry over Romeo’s deep melancholy, but they are so used to it they barely notice his new intense passion for Juliet. Benvolio urges Romeo to go the Capulets’ party to look upon all the beautiful girls that could distract him from his love-sickness. But Romeo is also a stubborn teenage boy, and says he will only go to the party “to rejoice in splendour of [his] own” (1.2.104), Rosaline. Romeo is so determined to stay “under love’s heavy burden” (1.4.20), that he insists on being torch-bearer at the party, and stands at the side not dancing, only watching.
Everything Romeo does, he does to the extreme. His actions have a youthful vigour about them. From the lowest depths of his melancholy over Rosaline, Romeo’s heart leaps to the high wings of his passionate and instant love for Juliet. He is not satisfied to just profess his love for Juliet; he must take it one step further and marry her as soon as can be arranged.
What Romeo does with this youthful vigour, he also does with a somewhat immature haste. He lacks a sense of consequence and does not pause to think about the possible repercussions of his actions. When leaving the Capulets’ party, no sooner does he speak of his love for Juliet than he vanishes over the wall into the orchard to wait beneath her balcony. He can not bear to leave the house where his beloved resides: “Turn back, dull earth, and find thy centre out” (2.1.2). Romeo dives straight into his love for Juliet, professing that she has now become the spiritual centre of his world.
When Romeo turns up to see Friar Laurence early the next morning, the Friar teases Romeo for his urgency and distress. Romeo is determined to make everything happen as fast as he possibly can. When he meets with Nurse to discuss wedding plans, he also tells her that within the hour a servant of his will come to her with a rope ladder for him to use on the wedding night. Romeo is not content to wait for anything.
It is Romeo’s haste that also gets him into trouble, when he rushes into things without thinking about the consequences. He kills Tybalt to avenge Mercutio’s death without thinking how it might make matters worse for his infant marriage. He rushes away to Mantua to save his skin from the possibility of execution without first coming to any arrangements with Juliet. When Balthazar tells Romeo of Juliet’s apparent death, Romeo does not wait for any more news, but procures a poison draft and rushes back to the danger of Verona. And when he sees Juliet in the tomb, he takes the draft immediately, when if he had waited a few minutes, Juliet would have woken up and prevented the imminent tragedy.
While Juliet grows up as a person during the play, Romeo also grows, but in a less apparent way. He grows out of his state of constant melancholy and lust into a more mature and spiritual lover. He is now more interested also in getting Juliet’s love back in return, rather than his past pining over Rosaline’s indifference.
With Juliet and Romeo, Shakespeare portrays the idea of youth in different, sometimes complementary, but often contrasting ways. Juliet’s youthful innocence is in contrast with Romeo’s reckless melancholy. Her obedience becomes a sign of her ability to think things through, relatively mature when contrasted with Romeo’s haste and impatience. The emphasis Shakespeare puts on the youth of the two lovers, coupled with the way Romeo’s haste speeds the plot towards their untimely deaths, intensifies the tragedy that is Romeo and Juliet.