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What Really Happened Between Romeo and Rosaline?

What about the relationship between Romeo and Rosaline?  Namely, why did things not work out between them, considering how in love Romeo purportedly was with her?  At first blush, Romeo strikes one as frivolous to go from Rosaline to Juliet without skipping a beat. 

Was Romeo simply “in love with love” (Bloom 278)? In fact, he had reasons other than adolescent whimsy. If we analyze the text, it becomes clear there is more to the story.  

A conventional view is that, despite the legendary romance, Romeo and Juliet is a story of young, and not particularly wise love: 

“...[Shakespeare] wished to demonstrate in Romeo and Juliet how reckless, labile and ephemeral the emotion of love is, especially in young people, and especially if one compares it with the considered love of older people” (Ackerman 275). 

This comports with the perspective of the Friar Laurence, certainly.  Maybe through the character the Friar Shakespeare was expressing his own, mature opinion on the matter of love.   But is there more to it?  

In the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is indeed enamored with Rosaline, whom he claims has caused him great woe.  This may strike some readers as surprising, given that the legend is around Romeo and Juliet, not Romeo and Rosaline.  “Who is Rosaline?” readers may wonder.  It’s a clever twist which Shakespeare puts on this tale, a kind of comment on teenage love and how changeable it can be.  

From Act I, Scene I, Romeo states the problem with Rosaline succinctly.  His loyal friend Benvolio asks him what is wrong: 

Benvolio: In love? 

Romeo: Out– 

Benvolio: Of love?

Romeo: Out of her favor where I am in love.

(Act I, Scene I, lines 177-180, p.21)  

The issue, then, is unrequited love.  Romeo loves Rosaline, yet she clearly does not love him.  Once Romeo meets Juliet at the Capulet’s ball, however, he quickly forgets Rosaline.  It is a matter of dramatic irony that his friend and kinsman, Benvolio and Mercutio, continue into Act II to assume that Romeo is still pining for Rosaline, when in fact he has moved on to a new fixation: Juliet. 

Just prior to the famous balcony scene, in which Juliet expresses her love for Romeo, Mercutio pokes fun at Romeo for what Mercutio believes is Romeo’s continuing obsession with Rosaline: 

“I conjure thee by Rosaline’s bright eyes, 

By her high forehead and her scarlet lip”

(Act II, Scene I, Lines 19-20, p. 67)

In various points of Act I and Act II, Mercutio tries to “liberate” Romeo from his attachment to Rosaline–all the while being unaware that Romeo has found Juliet (Bloom 286). Like any good friend, Mercutio tries to make light of Romeo’s serious relationship problems so that he isn’t overcome by melancholy.

Friar Laurence is the most censorious towards Romeo in terms of his changing infatuations, which the Friar chalks up to youthful passion.

At first, Friar Laurence is pleased to hear that Romeo has moved on from Rosaline.  “That’s good my son,” he encourages Romeo.  It’s only when he hears that Romeo is in love with someone else that Friar Laurence gently remonstrates with Romeo:

“Holy Saint Francis! What a change is here! 

Is Rosaline, that thou dids’t love so dear, 

So soon forsaken?  Young men’s love then lies

Not truly in their hearst, but in their eyes.”  

(Act II, Scene III, lines 70-74, p.87) 

Friar Laurence’s point is easy enough to understand: he’s exasperated that Romeo should change his mind and his heart so quickly.  Nonetheless, the Friar sees that this alliance between the Capulets and Montagues might be useful and therefore encourages Romeo’s marriage to Juliet as a way to calm the deadly feud between the two families.  In this captivating scene, Romeo defends himself against the charge his love is merely whimsical, explaining why he is no longer thinking of Rosaline.  

Indeed, Romeo’s response goes a long way towards justifying his actions and explicating the evolutions of his heart: 

“I pray thee chide not.  She whom I love now

Doth grace for grace and love for love allow.  

The other did not so” 

(Act II, Scene III, lines 92-94, p.87)

As Romeo explains, Rosaline did not return his affections, whereas Juliet does.  This is not an insignificant distinction.  In fact, it is a heathy instinct: to pursue a woman who so decidedly rejects his advances is a poor use of Romeo’s time and effort.  To pursue Juliet, who, as we know from the balcony scene, very much returns Romeo’s love, is a much better bet.  With this in mind, Romeo is not such a flighty teen as some might think. Rather, he is a passionate young man seeking to experience real love with a girl that actually loves him back. 

Works Cited 

  • Ackerman, Diane. “A Natural History of Love.” Shakespeare, William.  The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.  Dallas: McDougal Littell, 1997 (pgs. 273- 278) 
  • Bloom, Allan. Love and Friendship. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
  • Shakespeare, William.  The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.  Dallas: McDougal Littell, 1997  

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