Romeo and Juliet Revisited

Sigmund Freud once theorized that all instincts can be categorized as life instincts (Eros) or death instincts (Thanatos). Life instincts, most commonly referred to as sexual instincts, are the need for humans to survive, feel pleasure, and reproduce. Death instincts create a thrill-seeking energy that is expressed as self-destructive behavior. When that energy is expressed towards others, it becomes aggression and violence. William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” describes the tragic love story of two star-crossed lovers whose passion leads to both of their suicides. Their love is driven by life instincts of libido when they fall in love at first sight. Their death instincts drive them to become self-destructive and violent when Romeo slays Tybalt and when they both commit suicide. According to the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, Freud’s psychoanalogy describes how “humans function and feel at their best when these two drives are in harmony. Sexual love, for example, may include both tenderness and thrill-seeking.” Throughout the play, neither Romeo nor Juliet find that perfect balance between Eros and Thanatos. Both their romance and their deaths are driven by their broken instincts that resulted from the environment of hatred and violence in which they were raised.

Freud concluded that people will always have an unconscious yearning for death, however life instincts alleviate this desire. Not everyone agrees with Freud’s theories; however, if one chooses to believe this idea that everyone subconsciously is led by their death instincts, they would agree that Romeo and Juliet both express the want to die, but their unbalanced instincts don’t temper these feelings, which results in both of their suicides. After Tybalt has been slain by Romeo, Capulet tells Paris that he no longer can wait to marry Juliet, for they will be wed on Thursday. Juliet tells Lady Capulet, “O sweet my mother, cast me not away. Delay this marriage for a month, a week, / Or, if you do not, make the bridal bed / In that dim monument where Tybalt lies” (3.5.210). Juliet is threatening her mother by telling her that she would rather die than marry Paris. She declares that if the wedding is not delayed, her bridal bed will be her death bed next to Tybalt’s in the Capulet burial vault. In other words, death will take her maidenhead. In this case, Juliet’s desire to die is not tempered by her life instincts. According to Freud’s philosophy, the want to die is supposed to be balanced out with life instincts before the thought becomes a conscious one. Whereas with Juliet, her instincts aren’t in harmony and cause her to become self-destructive. In the same fashion, Romeo also expresses a certain eagerness to die, in particular when he finds out that Juliet is dead, but he doesn’t know that she has only faked her death. Romeo exclaims, “Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight. Let’s see for means. O mischief, thou art swift / To enter in the thoughts of desperate men” (5.1.37). Here, Romeo is stating that he will kill himself and lie dead next to his beloved very shortly. His eagerness to be with Juliet drives his want to die. Wicked mischief passes as this thought in his vulnerable mind and gives him ideas of death. It is important to realize that what Romeo refers to as mischief, is, in fact, death instincts. His instincts have led him to want to die, and he is enraged by it. His and Juliet’s broken instincts have led their vulnerable minds to consciously settle on the idea of death.

Additionally, Romeo and Juliet’s romance is driven by their sexual instincts when they fall in love at first sight. According to Sigmund Freud, the libido is part of the id and is the driving force of all behavior. According to the article “Life and Death Instincts,” “The id, he believed, was a reservoir of unconscious, primal energy. The id seeks pleasure and demands the immediate satisfaction of its desires. It is controlled by what Freud termed the pleasure principle. Essentially, the id directs all of the body’s actions and processes to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible. Because the id is almost entirely unconscious, people are not even aware of many of these urges.” The only thing that can control these urges is the ego. The ego is the part of a person’s personality that must tone down the libidinal energy. It must negotiate between the libidinal energy and the superego, which is the part of a person’s personality that incorporates lessons and morals taught by parental or authority figures. When Romeo and Juliet first fall in love and find out that their families are rivals, their superego doesn’t take control of their id’s impulses, therefore they choose to have pleasure over thinking rationally about the consequences of their actions. For example, in the balcony scene, Juliet says, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name, / Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, / And I’ll no longer be a Capulet” (2.2.35).

Instead of thinking about how their families will react to their love, Juliet says she’d give up being a Capulet for Romeo. In fact, she has lost all common sense and is overtaken by her libidinal energy. Later in the scene, Romeo asks “O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?” (2.2.132) As can be seen, Romeo as well as Juliet, is simply looking to satisfy his sudden desire for Juliet, driven by his life instincts. Based on Freud’s pleasure principle, their wishful impulses needed to be satisfied, regardless of the consequences. Ultimately, if their superegos had balanced out their libidinal energy, the play would not have resulted in their deaths.

If you think about it, death and sex are actually commonly associated as one concept in “Romeo and Juliet.” The article “Sex and Death” states that, “Juliet links sex and death by punning on the word “die” when, daydreaming about her impending wedding night with Romeo, she imagines Romeo being transformed into a bunch of “little stars” lighting up the night sky: ‘Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die / Take him and cut him out in little stars, / And he will make the face of heaven so fine’ (3.2.23-25).” Many take this quote quite literally and imagine that Juliet is talking about her physical death, when she is really referring to the slang, commonly used at that time, for sexual climax, “die.” Therefore, on her wedding night, Juliet wasn’t thinking about cutting Romeo up into stars when she physically dies, but rather when her libidinal urges are satisfied. Normally sex leads to the creation of life, however with Romeo and Juliet that is definitely not the case.

Another possible explanation for Romeo and Juliet’s unrequited love is their age and stage of development. In the play, Juliet is only thirteen, and Romeo is not much older. “Life and Death Instincts” asserts that, “according to Freud, children develop through a series of psychosexual stages. At each stage, the libido is focused on a specific area. When handled successfully, the child moves to the next stage of development and eventually grows into a healthy, successful adult.” Romeo and Juliet were teenagers and had not yet fully developed into healthy adults. Consequently, their actions were ones of careless adolescents, not ones of mature people. It is plausible that their behavioral immaturity was caused by their families’ feud. Maybe they were traumatized by something when they were younger, or perhaps being in a setting full of hatred and fights affected their superego. In addition, their superegos were not fully developed and could not function to control the id’s impulses of sex and aggression. “Id, Ego and Superego,” explains that “The ego engages in secondary process thinking, which is rational, realistic, and orientated towards problem solving. If a plan of action does not work, then it is thought through again until a solution is found. This is known as reality testing, and enables the person to control their impulses and demonstrate self-control, via mastery of the ego.” Obviously Romeo and Juliet had not mastered their ego, for they did not have self-control and did not think realistically when they tried to problem-solve. In contrast, an example of a character who had, in fact, mastered his ego is Friar Lawrence, who only agrees to marry Romeo and Juliet because he thinks that it might help to ease the ongoing feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. When that plan falls through, he comes up with an elaborate plan of Juliet faking her death and Romeo running away with her once she’s been placed in the Capulet burial vault.

Would Romeo and Juliet have come up with this plan on their own? Did Romeo even stop and think, when he was given the news that Juliet had died? Even when things have gotten completely out of hand with Romeo’s banishment, Capulet forcing Juliet to marry Paris, and the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, Friar Lawrence stays calm and tries to problem solve. There is clearly a contrast between characters with functioning instincts, and Romeo and Juliet. According to Freud, the id, the ego, and the superego are developed in stages. Romeo and Juliet’s were not fully mature and led them to irrational and irresponsible decision making.

Moreover, Freud observed that after experiencing trauma, people have self-destructive behavior, and they are more violent and aggressive. Thus, after trauma, death instincts take over a person’s behavior. After Romeo is witness to Tybalt murdering Mercutio, he suddenly changes from resisting the urge to fight, to being in a sudden rage. Before being traumatized by watching his best friend die, Romeo says, “I do protest I never injured thee / But love thee better than thou canst devise / Till thou shalt know the reason of my love” (3.1.70). In a word, Romeo simply doesn’t want to fight. In contrast, after Mercutio has died he yells, “Alive in triumph, and Mercutio slain! Away to heaven, respective lenity, / And [fire-eyed] fury be my conduct now.- Now, Tybalt, take the ‘villain’ back again / That late thou gavest me, for Mercutio’s soul/ Is but a little way above our heads, / Staying for thine to keep him company. Either thou or I, or both, must go with him” (3.1.130). Romeo’s sudden mood change from trying not to fight, to saying that either Tybalt or him or both must die and join Mercutio in heaven, shows how a traumatizing event can bring out a person’s death instincts. Romeo’s increased aggression and desperation causes him to slay Tybalt, and eventually kill himself. All in all, Romeo’s words were true. He, Tybalt, Paris, and even Juliet eventually joined Mercutio up in heaven.

Now one may ask, why do Romeo and Juliet have broken instincts? There are many possibilities. Their age and stage of development could be one factor. Their personalities weren’t fully developed or mature, which means neither their superegos were not fully developed nor their id, which would cause the desynchronization of their instincts. However, the most probable cause of their defective instincts is the environment in which they were raised. Throughout their whole life, they were taught to abhor the other family. For generations, the Montagues and the Capulets have been fighting. This could have been upsetting to a young child. Going back to the idea of trauma and its effect on personalities, Romeo and Juliet were probably traumatized as children because of all of the violence surrounding them. If they had experienced a shocking event at a young age, their personality would have been affected. If their personality was not developing normally, this might explain their damaged instincts. PsyArt Journal states that, “Repressed childhood traumata tend to elude repression and induce disguised reenactments of the original trauma later in life. Understanding puzzling aspects of a character’s behavior as a reenactment of childhood trauma would help explain his or her paradoxical actions and the unconscious processes underlying his or her words, thoughts, and feelings.” Romeo and Juliet both behave in puzzling ways and act in irrational ways. If they had experienced a childhood trauma, that would explain their damaged inner drives. The article “Romeo’s Childhood Trauma — ‘What Fray was Here?’” explains that “if one listens clinically to Romeo’s words, one hears indications of… a traumatic experience in childhood as would drive him toward his tragic fate. I believe it is a reenactment of childhood trauma that prevents Romeo from ‘putting Juliet on his horse and making for Mantua’ (Mahood 57) and thus avoiding the catastrophe entirely.” If Romeo was not reenacting a traumatizing experience as a child, he might would have avoided his tragic ending. Therefore, the most reasonable cause of at least Romeo’s damaged drives is a childhood trauma.

In conclusion, Romeo and Juliet are perfect examples of instincts expressed unhealthily. Their deaths were caused by either being too drunk in love to think rationally or too desperate to think of any other option but death. However, if they had thought about the consequences to their actions before the balcony scene and their marriage, the play would not have been called the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. “Id, Ego and Superego,” clarifies that “The id engages in primary process thinking, which is primitive, illogical, irrational, and fantasy oriented. This form of process thinking has no comprehension of objective reality, and is selfish and wishful in nature.” Romeo and Juliet were driven by their ids into being “fantasy oriented.” Love at first sight is a fantasy, getting married despite their families’ fuel is irrational, and when they commit suicide, they are only acting as a response to their feelings of tension and unpleasure due to id’s impulses being denied. Shakespeare and Freud come from two completely different time periods, and obviously Shakespeare would not have known Freud’s theories while writing his plays. However, they both intertwined the contrasting ideas of sex and death. Freud believed that our life instincts need to be balanced out with our death instincts. Shakespeare often uses sex and death as one common theme throughout many of his plays. If both Freud and Shakespeare came up with the same conclusion, wouldn’t it be valid to compare their ideas? All in all, there are many debates and contradictions surrounding both Shakespeare’s works and Freud’s theories, however the one thing everything can agree on is that they both try to examine the most abstract and mysterious thing there is to understand: humans.


Works Cited

Cherry, Kendra. “What Are Life and Death Instincts?” Verywell. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Freud, Sigmund. “IV. Sigmund Freud. 1922. Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” IV. Sigmund

Freud. 1922. Beyond the Pleasure Principle., n.d. Web. 02 May 2016.

Kastenbaum, Robert. “Death and Dying.” Death Instinct. Advameg, n.d. Web. 02 May 2016.

Krims, Marvin. “Romeo’s Childhood Trauma? — “What Fray Was Here?”” PsyArt: An Online

Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2016.

McLeod, S. A. “Id, Ego and Superego.” Id Ego Superego. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2016.

Shmoop Editorial Team. “Sex and Death in Romeo and Juliet.” Shmoop

University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 02 May 2016.

Shmoop Editorial Team. “Sex and Death in Romeo and Juliet.” Shmoop

University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 02 May 2016.

Shakespeare, William, and Jill L. Levenson. Romeo and Juliet. Oxford University Press, 2008.


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