Romeo is the young son of the affluent Montague family. He lusts after the unavailable, but oh-so gorgeous Rosaline until he sets eyes on Juliet Capulet (the only daughter of his family's arch enemies) and falls in love at first sight.
If you find yourself occasionally annoyed by Romeo, you're in good company. You can't spell "Romeo" without "emo" (he's so emotional and angsty), and that drives some people crazy. His over-the-top infatuation with Rosaline at the beginning of the play, immediately followed by his… completely forgetting about Rosaline, can make Romeo seem shallow and foolish.
The thing to know is that Shakespeare makes lovesick Romeo (the Romeo that crushes on Rosaline anyway) shallow and foolish on purpose. In fact, at the beginning of the play, his character is made to resemble a typical "Petrarchan lover," which had become a cliché by the time Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet (around 1595). Petrarch, by the way, was a fourteenth-century Italian poet whose sonnets were all the rage in Renaissance England. Petrarch's love poetry features "Laura," a figure who was as unavailable and unattainable as Rosaline. So, a "Petrarchan lover" is the kind of guy who mopes around sighing dramatically, moaning about the fact that his crush wants nothing to do with him, and reciting cheesy poetry about some angelic girl who's got eyes like stars, lips like luscious cherries, and who fills men with icy-fire (passion). It's no wonder that the name "Romeo" has become synonymous with the term "male lover."
So, Romeo may seem pretty annoying, that is, until you remember the last time you switched women (or men) like pairs of shoes. Then you remember that he isn't so much shallow as he is a person. A teenage person, to be more specific. That sort of gets us liking him again, especially when he meets Juliet and begins to figure out what true love is really all about. Even though Romeo breaks out a conventional pick-up line when he first chats it up with Juliet (he basically says that hooking up with Juliet would be a holy experience), it seems like his love for Juliet is pretty genuine. (We should note that some skeptics think the only difference between Romeo's desire for Rosaline and his passion for Juliet is the fact that Juliet, unlike Rosaline, loves Romeo back. What do you think?)
But, does Romeo's seemingly more authentic love for Juliet mean that Romeo evolves and matures as a character over the course of the play? On the one hand, we could say that yes, Romeo's puppy love for Rosaline gives way to a more grown up relationship with Juliet. On the other hand, we could say that Romeo doesn't really change all that much – he's rash and impetuous throughout the entire play, whether he's trespassing on Capulet property to see Rosaline, running off to elope with Juliet, or chugging a vial of poison when he mistakenly believes Juliet is dead. To be fair, Romeo does show restraint when Tybalt challenges him, which is a big deal, since Romeo damages his reputation when he refuses to fight. But, Romeo winds up killing Tybalt after Mercutio is murdered and he follows up this act of murder, by the way, with a bout of hysterics on the floor of Friar Laurence's cell (room).
Some critics argue that Juliet deserves someone better than Romeo. According to Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, Romeo can't quite keep up with Juliet. But never mind the literary critics. What do you think about Romeo?
We just made a really big deal about how Romeo may be acting a teensy bit rash when he kills Tybalt in Act 3, Scene 1. But, now we want to switch gears a bit and argue that, for the most part, Romeo's a lover, not a fighter. Let's recap a bit. When the Capulet and Montague servants start a big brawl in the opening scene, Shakespeare goes out of his way to let us know that Romeo is NOT out on the streets of Verona like all the other young men. In fact, his mom asks, "O, where is Romeo? Saw you him to-day? / Right glad I am he was not at this fray" (1.1.2). Romeo, as it turns out, has been off doing what Romeo does best…daydreaming about a girl. It seems that love has a whole lot to do with Romeo's disinterest in fighting.
Later, when Tybalt wants to rumble (because Romeo crashed the Capulet party earlier), Romeo flat out refuses to fight because he doesn't want to hurt his new wife, who happens to be related to Tybalt (3.1).
So why does Romeo kill Tybalt? Excellent question. We're glad you asked. First, Tybalt kills Romeo's BFF, Mercutio, and Romeo feels responsible. Plus, Tybalt comes back to gloat about it. (Does this mean Romeo's friendship with Mercutio is more important to him than his marriage to Juliet? What do you think? If your answer is "yes," then you should also know that Romeo wouldn't be the only Shakespeare character to prioritize bromance over marriage. Think about Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, for example.) Second, and perhaps more importantly, Romeo is feeling pretty ashamed that he didn't fight Tybalt earlier and he blames it all on his love for Juliet:
O sweet Juliet,
Thy beauty hath made me effeminate
And in my temper soften'd valour's steel! (3.1.7)
Translation: Romeo thinks that loving Juliet has made him into a "soften'd" wimp. Turns out, many Elizabethans believed that love (between a man and a woman, that is) could turn a man into a wimp. The same idea appears in plays like Henry IV Part 1, where Hotspur refuses to have sex with his wife before heading into battle because he doesn't want to be "soft" on the battlefield.
The point we're trying to make about Romeo's relationship to violence is this: the pressure to be a "man" (which involves a lot of sword fighting in this play) eventually gets to Romeo and he caves in to the idea that masculinity and violence go hand in hand. And, we all know that when Romeo kills Tybalt his actions have some major consequences – Romeo is banned from Verona, which leads to him to seek out some pretty bad advice and guidance from Friar Laurence, which basically leads to the deaths of both Romeo and Juliet. So, we're thinking that social pressure plays a huge part in Romeo's tragedy.