Did you know that the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet takes place over five days? Romeo and Juliet fall in love at their first encounter and the two are secretly wed the next day. On the third day, Romeo is exiled for killing Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, and on the fourth, Juliet pretends to be dead in order to avoid marrying Count Paris. Lastly, on the fifth day, Romeo kills himself thinking Juliet is really dead, and Juliet stabs herself after she wakes up to Romeo’s dead body.
When we think of Romeo and Juliet, we think of the beautiful sacrifice of two innocent lovebirds that reconciles and ultimately ends a long history of family feud. Lessons learned: don’t hate your neighbors, love conquers all.
Okay, that’s all good, but I want to challenge this common and clichéd understanding of the story.
I believe a combination of unfortunate circumstances, wrong timing, and stupid choices eventually led to the fateful end of Romeo and Juliet.
First of all, the facts of the play tell us that Juliet is 13 years old, and Romeo not much older. They are adolescents – inherently impulsive and rebellious at heart – and it doesn’t help that Romeo seems to have a fundamental tendency to be impatient and short-tempered. Thus, it is not a surprise that these two make rash decisions (e.g. committing suicide) that lead to their tragic end.
The reactance effect, a concept in reverse psychology, occurs “in response to threats to perceived behavioral freedoms” . This effect explains our tendency to resist persuasion and to want to do things that we should not do, and as we know, this tendency is stronger in children and adolescents.
Accordingly, Juliet is probably (at least subconsciously) more attracted to Romeo because he is a Montague, whom she is forbidden to love. We can see that she has been an obedient girl more or less her whole life due to her father’s tyrannical ways. The reason she wants to fake her death in the first place is to avoid having to marry Count Paris, whom her father has chosen as her husband. Even at the end, does she really kill herself because she thinks a world without Romeo is not worth living? Maybe, but then again, she hears her parents and other people coming to find her before she stabs herself – I think a large part of it has to do with not wanting to live a life controlled by her father.
As with Romeo, he literally falls in love with Juliet at first sight – why? Because of her looks, of course!
“One fairer than my love! The all-seeing sun ne’er saw her match since first the world begun.” [Act I Scene II]
Romeo was lovesick earlier that very day because of a different girl – Rosaline – because she would not accept his love.
“She is too fair, too wise, wisely too fair, to merit bliss by making me despair: She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow do I live dead that live to tell it now.” [Act I Scene I]
But when a girl prettier than Rosaline comes along, he is cured in no time. Is Romeo a player? I don’t know, but clearly he likes good-looking girls.
Furthermore, unlike in the case of Rosaline, Romeo has nothing to fear because he overhears Juliet’s confession:
"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'l no longer be a Capulet." [Act II Scene II]
That is to say, he had no fear of rejection– one more reason to pursue this pretty girl!
So… Love or Infatuation?
According to a study, it is neurobiologically possible to fall in love "at first sight” – it takes 0.2 seconds for the brain to release love-related hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline, and vasopressin, which induce a euphoric feeling similar to that induced by cocaine . Perhaps this is what Romeo was feeling when he first saw Juliet.
Not only that, during this early stage of love is when chemicals like dopamine, phenylethylamine, (PEA), and oxytocin activate the pink lens effect and the tunnel vision effect to create an illusion that your partner is flawless and that your relationship is perfect .
However, it is also scientifically proven that the level of these hormones decrease with time – the average expiration date of love is 18 to 36 months .
The bottomline is, Romeo and Juliet may have acted on temporary passion or lovesick paranoia. I don’t think they lived long enough to find out if they were truly right for each other.