There are many themes evident in Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet: love, hate, youth, death, honor, fate, and conflict to name but a few. There is another theme, however, which can be discerned throughout the play and is more easily overlooked: Christianity. The Christian themes woven intricately into the plot by the Bard are quite subtle to be sure and do not represent an overt allegorical representation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus such as in, for example, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Rather, Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy in the classical Greek tradition but with a distinctly Christian twist.
William Shakespeare as a child of the Renaissance received the classical education typical in the schools of Western Christendom during the 16th century. This education would have included, in addition to grammar, logic, and rhetoric, an immersion in Biblical studies and theology. Thus he, along with all intellectuals in the Christian West, would have been extremely well-versed in Judeo-Christian doctrine and it is thus not surprising that myriad Christian threads are woven masterfully throughout the fabric of his verse.
He also would have read all of the great works of classical literature in the original Greek and Latin such as the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides and the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In Poetics, his classic treatise on literature, Aristotledefined good tragedy as that which “excite(s) pity and fear” in the audience as “these effects are those which…tragedy represents” (9, 10). He argues this empathy produces the cathartic effect or emotional cleansing of the audience when the tragic hero(s) are those “whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty (10). The vice that afflicts the Montague and Capulet families is the same that caused man’s original fall from grace through Adam’s transgression, and which caused Lucifer’s banishment from heaven: pride. It is the pride and excessive sense of personal and familial honor that is at the root of the feuding families’ conflict. In the case of the title characters their tragic flaw, or hamartia, is not vice or sin but youthful impetuosity as they fail to heed Friar Lawrence’s admonition to “love moderately” (2.6.14).
Another word for moderation is temperance, one of the four Cardinal Virtues in Christian canon. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, temperanceis “the moral virtue that … ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable” (497). Clearly Romeo and Juliet, gripped as they are in the youthful rapture of romantic love, fail to practice moderation with tragic results.
The most important of the Christian sub-themes in this story is also the most important in the Christian narrative. That is, the concept of self-sacrifice and the power of love to conquer all, including sin and death itself. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote in Life of Christ, explaining the centrality of the crucifixion to Christianity, “It was not so much that His birth cast a shadow on His life and thus led to His death; it was rather that the Cross was first, and cast its shadow back to His birth” (20). It is here that the question of fate comes into play. Just as our Blessed Lord, being the only Begotten of the Father, was born for the singular purpose of laying down His life to defeat sin (a purpose He freely accepted), so too are Romeo and Juliet (both the only begotten of their parents) fated to shed their blood for the greater good of reconciling the two warring families. And Just as the Cross at Golgotha cast its imposing shadow upon the humble cradle in Bethlehem, the vile and the dagger in the tomb of the Capulet’s are the ever-present burden of the young lovers to bear. In much the same way as the death of our Lord reconciled a rebellious race with the Father, they “with their death bury their parents strife” (prologue).
Thomas Jefferson once famously said “the tree of liberty must be refreshed, from time to time, by the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Likewise, the Tree of Life need be nourished by the Blood of the Innocent which must be spilt to expiate the sins of the guilty. This theme is common to both Romeo and Juliet and the Christian Creed.
In both the Christian Gospel’s and Romeo and Juliet the apparent paradox exists of free-will co-existing with fate: whereas Jesus (who has referred to Himself as the Bridegroom) said in the Garden of Gethsemane, “O My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39.) Juliet said “O sweet my mother … Delay this marriage … Or if you do not, make the bridal bed in that dim monument (tomb) where Tybalt lies” (3.5.210-213) And Romeo, dismissing the foreboding premonition of his grim fate he experiences before entering the Capulet’s party states, “but he that hath the steerage of my course direct my sail” (1.4.119) In both cases the doomed accept their solemn responsibility, submitting to the will of God to serve the greater good, when they could have opted otherwise.
The role of Friar Lawrence in the play is critical to the Christian theme. It is he who represents and promotes the Christian paradigm where most others are blissfully ignorant of its moral precepts. It is he who repeatedly warns Romeo to control his ravenous desires. And it is he who physically comes between Romeo and Juliet as they passionately embrace. He does this not to forbid their union because of hate (as their families surely would), but only to delay its consecration until after they are joined in Holy Matrimony for the sake of their virtue which he seeks lovingly to protect. And when Friar Lawrence first agrees to marry the young couple, he tells Romeo he will do so not merely for their own sakes, but “to turn your households’ rancor to pure love” (2.3.99). Wittingly or not, each is playing their part in God’s plan.
It is at this point that events take their tragic turn. The Friar, attempting to protect the virtue of the too eager young lovers while simultaneously preventing an explosion of strife on the streets of “fair Verona,” weds the young lovers surreptitiously while he considers how he might endeavor to convince the feuding families to accept the union and bury their mutual animosity. This well-meaning deception sets in motion the chain of events leading to the tragic deaths of the “star-crossed lovers.”
When Romeo, having been swept up in the family tumult, kills Tybalt and is banished Juliet is left despondent. And when she threatens to kill herself, Friar Lawrence concocts a potion that will give Juliet the appearance of death for a period of 42 hours, after which she is to awaken unharmed in her family tomb where Romeo is to meet her and whisk her away in the night. This is reminiscent of the 3-day period between Jesus’ death and resurrection and His subsequent ascension into Heaven, but it begs the following question: why does Shakespeare use the number 42 instead of 24, 48, or 72 hours? 42 is the number of generations that passed between Abraham and Jesus in the biblical genealogy contained in Matthew’s gospel. And it is the number of months (or 3 ½ years) that the anti-Christ will reign on earth, according to the Book of Revelations. It may very well be that there is no real significance to the number he selected here; however, since 42 is a fairly significant number in the Christian Bible, it is worth considering if it has symbolic value to Shakespeare.
The penultimate scene in the play depicts the deaths of Romeo and Juliet within the stony walls of the Capulet tomb. This is similar to the Easter scene in the Gospels. When a morose Mary Magdalene goes to mourn at the tomb of Jesus only to find it empty, the reality of the Resurrection finally dawns upon the Apostles. With the help of the anointing by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they finally come to understand the true purpose of the Incarnation. Heretofore Jesus’ closest followers viewed him more as a divine political leader than the Great Redeemer. Likewise the Montague and Capulet families, upon beholding the fate of their beloved children in the tomb, finally recognize the folly and cost of their bitter feud. As a result, they repent and vow to end it. Love ultimately conquers.
While it was not necessarily meant to be a pure Christian allegory, the Christian themes to be found in Romeo and Juliet are, nevertheless many and manifest: self-sacrifice, the power of love, temperance, the tomb, Christian virtue, the Resurrection, and the dichotomy of fate co-existing with free-will are all prominent parts of the narrative. These elements add to the rich literary mosaic of this masterpiece Shakespeare created which is at once aesthetically beautiful, emotionally vibrant, and morally edifying. And while it fits Aristotle’s requirements of tragedy insomuch as it inspires pity and fear in the audience, it adds another element that was left out of the Greek narratives dominated by arbitrary and capricious gods: hope.
Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Bucher. 31 October 2007. http://classics.mit.edu//Aristotle/poetics.mb.txt.
Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
King James Bible. Atlanta: Lionheart Books, Ltd. 2000.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.
Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1990.