What relevance has the study of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the modern world? Essay

Nobody can choose where they are born, and Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet illustrates what can happen when two people are born into families which are locked in a war of grudges and bitter rivalry with each other. The play illustrates how long term arguments between privileged families can get out of hand. Young men feel obliged to take up arms to defend the family honour. It shows how the normal rules which keep society in order break down in this atmosphere of prejudice and hate. The strongest theme in the play is the way that young people suffer because of the mistakes of their older relatives, and they are prevented from growing up to experience normal young love and passion with their chosen partner. The parents decided for them when and whom they should marry and this causes a lot of trouble. One result of this is that the younger members rise up against their families and lose respect for their elders. The only way to end this kind of situation is to find a way to stop the senseless violence and let peace come out of a new appraisal of each person’s human value, regardless what family they come from. These themes all exist in the modern world, from the gang cultures of our inner cities to the arranged marriages that occur in some cultural groups. Many couples still love each other in spite of the opposition of their families and this is one reason why Romeo and Juliet still makes sense to a modern audience, even though it was written over four hundred years ago.

The play opens with the words “Two households, both alike in dignity,/In fair Verona, where we lay our scene” (Prologue: lines 1-2) and this tells the audience what the fundamental tension of the play will be. The chorus reveals that the main characters will love each other and will die, and that this will be the way that the “ancient grudge” between the two families will be removed. One indication of the strength of the hatred that exists between the families is the way that they call each other names such as “A dog of the house of Montague” (Act 1 , scene 1, line 7) or “A dog of that house (Act 1, scene 1, line 10) and “Thou villain Capulet (Act 1, scene 1, line 76). The young men challenge each other to draw their swords, and it is clear that the only reason they want to fight is because they are sworn enemies.

Gang rivalry is very often carried out by men. They are motivated by pride and arrogance, wanting to show off their strength . Tybalt even reveals that he hates the idea of peace as much as he hates the Montagues. (Act 1, scene 1, line 67-68) There does not seem to be any reason for the hatred other than that the people who bear the opposite name are the enemy. This kind of unthinking prejudice leads to all kinds of violence even in the present day and the carrying of weapons is a sign that this is a real grudge with serious consequences. The women seem to be more reasonable, and Montague’s wife tries to hold him back, even though he resists her. This kind of behaviour can be seen in the modern world when very strict fathers try to lock up their daughters and prevent them from going out and seeing other people, especially men. They have too much power over others, and they use it to make people obey their will. In gang warfare it is a matter of pride to carry guns or knives, and very often the only people who try to stop the violence from getting worse are the mothers, sisters and girlfriends who have lost their loved ones.

The Prince in the play represents the force of law and order. There was no such thing as a police force in the time of Shakespeare, and so the rulers had to find other ways to make sure that people kept the law of the land. In this case he summons the two older representatives of the families to come and see him. Capulet has to go with him immediately, and Montague is to come in the afternoon. This is a bit like them being arrested so that they can be told what is right and what is wrong, and they can be warned to behave themselves better in the future. In Act 3 scene 1, the Prince arrives on the scene once more after a violent fight, and he conducts a sort of enquiry, asking what happened and trying to figure out who is to blame. This is what the police do today, and just as in the play, they very often do find out what happens in particular incidents. They lock up the criminals and they find evidence, and then the criminals are taken to court. The problem today, is very similar to the one in the play, however. The arrest of one or two people does not fix the bigger problem of huge battles and it does not even begin to look at the causes of all this violence in the first place. In Shakespeare’s time, banishing people from the scene was the usual way to eliminate problems, but as we see in the play, it is not always a good solution.

The true love between Romeo and Juliet is seen at its height I n Act 2 scene 1. Romeo is captivated by her looks, and describes her eyes as stars and wishes he could be a glove that she lays her head on. This is an example of the way that young people in love idealize the person that they love. Juliet is like an angel to him, and her appearance high above him on the balcony is a symbolic way of showing how he puts her on a pedestal and worships her from below. Juliet is willing to give up her name, and wants just to be with him, as if none of the practical details of their family ties were in existence. This is very naïve, and most young people fall into the trap of loving someone, sometimes even a singer or actor/actress or sportsperson, who is completely out of reach. The reality of the situation makes their love impossible, but their inexperience makes them rash. They think that love is the answer to everything, and that it will solve all their problems, as we can see in the words of Juliet: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea/My love as deep. The more I give to thee/The more I have, for both are infinite.” (Act 2, Scene 1, lines 175-178) Both Romeo and Juliet are well aware of the fact that they are forbidden to see each other, but this does not stop them, and in fact it seems to make them all the more determined to resist their families and pursue what their dream is. Teenagers often act without thinking through the consequences of their actions, and this is an example of two young people being carried away by their feelings and not stopping to think what is likely to happen next.

The decision of the two young lovers to get married in spite of their familys’ wishes is a very typical thing which has happened throughout the ages. In families where the children have good relationships with their parents this is a rare occurrence, because marriage involves parents as well, and most people want to include them. In families where the relationships are less secure, however, there is more tendency for young people to break away and do their own thing. Nowadays it is less likely that young lovers would actually get married, because traditions have changed, but there are many young people in the modern world who have relationships, including fully adult ones, which their parents object to.

The way that the play ends the fight between the Montagues and the Capulets is to have the two young lovers commit suicide. They see this as the only way that they can be together and this makes it plain in a very bitter way, that the consequence of hatred and violence is usually and endless cycle of more and more hatred and violence. There is a sort of sacrifice here, where their death saves the rest of their families, but it is not very realistic. In today’s world such an occurrence would cause scandal in the newspapers and probably also more fighting.

The various themes in this play all contribute to this major message that violence is not a good principle to live by. The grudges are shown to be pointless and the power of law and order is not strong enough to step in and stop it. Families who try to repress young love, force their children into arranged marriage, and crush young peoples’ natural tendencies to assert themselves are ultimately shown, in the death of Romeo and Juliet, that they are literally killing their own children. The message of the play is mainly one for parents: let you children grow up in an atmosphere of love and respect, for those inside and outside the family circle, because the alternative of hatred and prejudice will only lead to more violence.


Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet.