Readers of Shakespeare’s famous love story have generally interpreted the play in three major ways. One common view portrays the lovers as victims of fate or fickle fortune, as “star-crossed” because of the strange accidents and uncontrollable forces that control the destiny of their love — the family feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, Romeo’s sudden banishment, and the delay of Friar Lawrence’s letter that explains that Juliet is not dead but under a sleeping potion. This interpretation minimizes the lovers’ responsibility in causing their own tragedy by their hasty marriage, impatience, impetuosity, and despair.
A second view of the tragedy idealizes the love of Romeo and Juliet as beautifully romantic and transcendent, above criticism and moral culpability — a true love that the animosity of the families frustrated from following its natural course of culminating in a happy marriage.
The third approach to the play, the one which Pearce incorporates with impeccable clarity and logic, interprets Romeo and Juliet as a “cautionary or moral reading in which the freely chosen actions of each of the characters are seen to have far-ranging and far-reaching consequences.”
Although Fortune, the family feud, and Romeo and Juliet’s tragic flaws all contribute to the deaths of the young couple, Pearce’s cogent argument attributes the primary cause of the tragedy to Romeo and Juliet’s immature, secretive, and irrational love and the secondary cause to the poor counsel and irresponsible conduct of the adults who misdirect the lovers.
With perceptive insight Pearce notes the comparison between Romeo’s strained language of love to the rhetoric in Petrarch’s sonnets, language that amounts to “mere cliché” and banality when seen in the tradition of the hackneyed Italian sonnet. Mercutio mocks Romeo’s inflated statements of love: “Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flow’d in; Laura, to his lady, was a kitchenwench.” Pearce quotes Crystal Downing’s discovery of the telling fact that “Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet ‘at the height of the 1590s sonnet fad’.” Romeo’s idea of love, then, suffers from its artificial conventionality.