Romeo: Shakespeare's Famous Doomed Lover

The Origins of this Star-Crossed Swain Date Back to Ancient Times

Romeo and Juliet
Representación de Romeo y Julieta. W. and D. Downey / Getty Images

One of the original "star-cross'd lovers," Romeo is the male half of the ill-fated pair who drive the action in the Shakespearean tragedy, "Romeo and Juliet." Much has been written about the origins of the character, as well Romeo's influence on other young male lovers throughout Western literature, but rather than a role model to be emulated, Shakespeare's Romeo is an enduring example of young love gone horribly wrong. 

What Happens to Romeo

The heir of the House of Montague, Romeo meets and becomes enamored with Juliet, the young daughter of the House of Capulet. Most interpretations of the story estimate Romeo to be about 16 years old, and Juliet to be just shy of her 14th birthday. For reasons unexplained, the Montagues and Capulets are bitter enemies, so the young lovers know their affair will anger their families, however, the titular couple isn't interested in family feuds, and instead, they choose to pursue their passion. 

While Romeo and Juliet secretly marry with the help of his friend and confidant, Friar Laurence, the two are doomed from the start. After Juliet's cousin Tybalt kills Romeo's friend Mercutio, Romeo retaliates by killing Tybalt. For this, he is sent into exile, returning only when he hears of Juliet's death. Unbeknownst to Romeo, Juliet—who is being forced to marry Paris (a wealthy suitor favored by her father) against her will—has come up with a scheme to fake her own death and be reunited with her true love.

Friar Laurence sends a message to Romeo informing him of her plan, but the note never reaches Romeo. Romeo, truly believing Juliet is dead, is so heartbroken, he kills himself in a fit of grief, at which point, Juliet awakens from the sleeping draught she's taken to find Romeo is no more. Unable to bear the loss of her love, she too, kills herself—only this time, for real. 

Origins of the Romeo Character

Romeo and Juliet make their first appearance in "Giulietta e Romeo," a 1530 story by Luigi da Porto, which was itself adapted from Masuccio Salernitano's 1476 work "Il Novellino." All of these works can, in some way or other, trace their origins to "Pyramus and Thisbe," another pair of ill-fated lovers found in Ovid's "Metamorphoses."

Pyramus and Thisbe live next door to each other in ancient Babylon. Forbidden by their parents to have anything to do with one another—thanks again to an ongoing family feud—the couple nevertheless manages to communicate through cracks in the wall between the family estates.

The similarities to "Romeo and Juliet" don't end there. When the Pyramus and Thisbe finally arrange a meeting, Thisbe arrives at the predetermined spot—a mulberry tree—only to find it being guarded by a menacing lioness. Thisbe runs away, accidentally leaving her veil behind. Upon arriving, Pyramus finds the veil, and believing the lioness has killed Thisbe, he falls on his sword—literally. Thisbe returns to find her lover dead, and then she too dies of a self-inflicted wound from Pyramus' sword. 

While "Pyramus and Thisbe" may not have been Shakespeare's direct source for "Romeo and Juliet," it was certainly an influence on the works from which Shakespeare drew, and he used the trope more than once. In fact, "Romeo and Juliet" was written in a concurrent timeframe to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in which "Pyramus and Thisbe" is staged as a play within a play—only this time for comedic effect.

Was Romeo's Death Fate?

After the young lovers die, the Capulets and Montagues finally agree to end their feud. Shakespeare leaves it mostly to his audience to decide whether or not Romeo and Juliet's deaths were predestined as part of the legacy of their families' longstanding enmity, or if perhaps the conflict might have been ended by more peaceful means had the families been willing to embrace love rather than hate.