I wrote this sample essay on January 10 and 11, 2018, as an example for high-school freshmen.
Would you die for love? In Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, the main characters come from two feuding families. They fall in love before they learn each other’s last name, and their love cuts through and across everything else: the city government, the family feud, and even their own futures. At the end of the play, the “star-crossed lovers” die. Though the Montagues and Capulets are feuding, Romeo’s nature, more than anything else, dooms Romeo and Juliet. His responses to Rosaline, to Juliet, to Mercutio’s death, and to his own banishment indicate an unstable mental state that leads to the couple’s demise.
In the beginning of the play, we learn that Romeo pines for a young woman named Rosaline. He dismisses love as “a smoke raised with the fume of sighs” and forgets his courtesy with his friend Benvolio, excusing himself thus: “Tut, I have lost myself; I am not here; This is not Romeo, he’s some other where.” So we know he is lost in a cloud of Rosaline. This is our first big clue as to his nature: he learns she has taken a vow of chastity and regrets this bitterly, not only because he can never consummate the love he feels for her but because she shall never have children to pass on her beauty: “For beauty starved with her severity/Cuts beauty off from all posterity.” Note that not once does he consider her needs or wants; he only thinks of her beauty and how her chastity deprives him and others. That night, to comfort him, his friends propose they sneak into a party at the Capulet house, where he might again glimpse Rosaline. Unable to help himself, he goes. At the party he sees Juliet, immediately falls in love with her (“Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!/For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night”), and persuades her to share two kisses with him. Both Tybalt and Juliet learn he is a Montague present at Capulet house, endangering all.
Romeo then trespasses on the Capulet grounds to spy on Juliet, musing on her balcony. He overhears her declare her love for him, announces himself, then begins to swear his love for her. She asks him not to swear (“ . . . Yet if thou swear’st./Thou mayst prove false; at lovers’ perjuries/They say, Jove laughs”). Wisely, Juliet says, “ . . . Although I joy in thee,/I have no joy of this contract to-night:/It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;/Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be/Ere one can say ‘It lightens.’” Thus begins the trend of others advising Romeo not to be rash, to calm himself and his passions. That said, having just met Romeo that night, Juliet says she is willing to marry him—if he sleeps on it! If he reaffirms his love on the morrow, she will meet and marry him that day. Though Romeo has Juliet beat, she is impulsive too.
Tybalt seeks to revenge himself upon Romeo for Romeo’s trespassing into the Capulet party. He neither knows nor cares Romeo’s motivations regarding Rosaline nor Juliet, seeing him only as a hated enemy. When Tybalt encounters and threatens Romeo in the street, Romeo expresses love for him and refuses to fight. He is by this point married to Juliet, Tybalt’s cousin, and sees Tybalt as family—but Tybalt is ignorant of the marriage. “Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee,” Romeo says, “Doth much excuse the appertaining rage/To such a greeting: villain am I none; Therefore farewell; I see thou know’st me not.” He adds, “I do protest, I never injured thee,/But love thee better than thou canst devise,/Till thou shalt know the reason of my love:/And so, good Capulet,–which name I tender/As dearly as my own,–be satisfied.” Tybalt can only see this as sarcastic mockery. Mercutio, taking Romeo’s refusal as cowardice, jumps to defend his friend and urges Romeo to join him. Romeo instead tries to separate the two, at which point (no pun intended) Tybalt slays Mercutio with an unfair thrust under Romeo’s arm. Mercutio, blaming Romeo, dies. Romeo, filled with remorse and regret, blames himself for being too soft to fight (“O sweet Juliet, Thy beauty hath made me effeminate/And in my temper soften’d valour’s steel!”), then decides to revenge himself on Tybalt (“Away to heaven, respective lenity,/And fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!”), who returns. Romeo slays Tybalt, earning himself banishment. The suddenness of Romeo’s change from peace to war shows the inconstancy of his spirit. This, of course, gives the lie to the phrase “star-crossed”. Romeo crosses himself—and Juliet.
When Romeo is overcome with grief over his banishment, Friar Lawrence encourages him to change his attitude. Romeo, inconsolable, refuses to listen and threatens to kill himself with a dagger. Friar Lawrence points out how doing so would go against Juliet while earning Romeo eternal damnation: “Wilt thou slay thyself,/And slay thy lady that in thy life lives, by doing damned hate upon thyself?” He says doing so would amount to “Killing that love which thou hast vowed to cherish”. Friar Lawrence lists all that Romeo has going for him: Juliet is alive; Tybalt is dead; Romeo’s life has been spared. The Nurse arrives with news and Juliet’s ring, to which Romeo responds, “How well my comfort is revived by this!” Based on his reversals, one could argue that Romeo is mentally ill or that his situation has driven him mad.
The entire chain of events of the play, from bad to worse, is precipitated by Romeo. He trespasses in the Capulet house party; he trespasses in the Capulet garden under Juliet’s balcony; and he rashly seeks revenge upon Tybalt for killing his friend Mercutio. The results? Tybalt seeks to kill him; Juliet and he get married the day after meeting; and the Prince banishes Romeo for killing Tybalt. Each of these demonstrates extreme impulsivity, with mainly bad results. Had not Romeo trespassed on the Capulet grounds the first time or even the second, the entire sequence of events would not have occurred, but I continue to wonder, had not they died, whether Romeo would still love Juliet the following week.
As a student of mine said, “A mere glimpse of Juliet made Romeo forget all about Rosaline instantly. This shows how fickle Romeo is. Romeo is also quite impulsive, and his unwise decisions lead to his eventual downfall.”