Courtly Love in Romeo and Juliet

Courtly Love in Romeo and Juliet
In this play, Shakespeare parodies or mocks the Courtly Love convention (custom) which governed the relation of
aristocratic lovers during the Mediaeval times. It is called Courtly Love, because it was seen as the appropriate kind of
non-physical love in the elegant setting of a King’s Court. Various aspects of the convention were evident in the
Renaissance period (this play is set in Renaissance) and many qualities of this type of love are alive and well today.
Romeo and Rosaline’s relationship typifies the Courtly Love convention, and to some extent the early stages of
Romeo and Juliet’s love follow the pattern too. The second type of love explored in the play is the coarse, bawdy and
highly-descriptive sexual love referred to – in puns – by Meructio and the Nurse.
Characteristics of the Courtly Lover:
- sighs and groans - wants to be alone
- unkempt and dishevelled
- can’t sleep
- walks alone in early hours
- melancholy
- courteous and chivalrous
- gallant and brave
- truthful - generous
- defends his lady’s honour
- noble and aristocratic
- secretive
- writes poetry to / about the one desired
- swears never-ending love
- willing (eager?) to die for his mistress
Characteristics of the Woman:
- cold and aloof
- disdainful
- pure
- beautiful
- noble woman
- says “no” but means “yes”
- put on a pedestal by lover – like a goddess or perfect virgin
Stages of Courtly Love
1. Attraction to the lady, usually via eyes/glance
2. Worship of the lady from afar
3. Declaration of passionate devotion
4. Virtuous rejection by the lady
5. Renewed wooing with oaths of virtue and eternal fealty
6. Moans of approaching death from unsatisfied desire (and other physical manifestations of lovesickness)
7. Heroic deeds of valor which win the lady's heart
8. Consummation of the secret love
9. Endless adventures and subterfuges avoiding detection
One of the reasons for the lover’s above mentioned melancholy is that his adoration of his mistress is not returned. Unreturned
love is termed unrequited love. Hence, we have the sighs and groans, the solitary wandering (needed for thinking about love
problems), the introspection, and the intense distraction leading to an inability to keep up personal appearance.
An essential quality in this convention is that the mistress is unattainable, for whatever reasons. Because the mistress is
unattainable, a sexual union is never reached. Much of the lover’s moping has to do with this sad fact. The lover, struck by his
mistress’ beauty, usually falls in love at first sight. Northrop Frye says the falling in love is instantaneous and involuntary; “no
more romantic, in the usual sense, than getting shot in the head with a bullet”. Because the mistress holds herself aloof, no
depth of spiritual union is reached. The goal of the courtly lover is not to attain the love object, but simply to faithfully and
continuously pursue and desire her. The courtly lover’s poetry reflects this life-long pursuit.
Courtly love is non-physical love; it is the worshiping of the lady in waiting.
Because the mistress was elevated to the level of a Christian saint in the lover’s eyes, a body of religious
terminologies developed to talk about Courtly Love:
1) mistress = saint
2) God = Cupid or Eros
3) atheists = people who don’t believe in the convention
4) heretics = people who don’t follow the rules of the convention
5) pilgrim = lover – worshipper at the saint’s shrine
When Romeo meets Juliet, he claims to be experiencing “the real thing”. At its inception, the “real thing” is as much a
convention as his love for Rosaline was. But the nature and quality of the love changes throughout the course of the play, and
more importantly, the love changes the lovers.
When we first meet him, he is a love-sick, moping, peevish, brainsick youth. After meeting Juliet, he becomes a resolved leader
who learns to shape the course of his own destiny.
When we first meet her, she is a mere girl with no will of her own. As Frye says, she makes “proper young lady noises” like “It
(marriage to Paris) is an honour that I dream not of.”(I.iii) After meeting Romeo, the strength and passion of her speech: “Gallop
apace, you fiery-footed steeds…” (III.ii) reflects her acquired maturity and strength of purpose. She defies her mother, father
and beloved nurse, and she ultimately faces isolation, dishonour and death.
The language of courtly love is full of exaggerated language. Romeo measures a woman’s worthiness by her physical beauty:
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a jewel upon an Ethiop’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use…
He once again uses the language of the courtly lover; he refers to Juliet as a “holy shrine” (she is the “saint” of his worship), to
his own lips as “two blushing pilgrims”. Read his lines. He is rather “smooth” in his efforts in trying to win a kiss. But Juliet is
an easy match for his clever wit, and she challenges his efforts, argument for argument, before she finally allows him a kiss.
“Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I n’er saw true beauty till this night”