Romeo's Childhood Trauma? -- "What fray was here?"

by Marvin Krims

November 26, 1999


As a psychoanalyst, I believe that powerful literary representations of human complexity (like Shakespeare's) include representation of the way unconscious processes affect the fictive lives of the characters. And since unconscious processes invariably reflect childhood development, it seems to me that imprints of childhood developmental issues must also be represented in texts. A close reading of the words-on-the page should be able to locate these imprints. Here, I show that Romeo's words can be read to reveal a childhood trauma, trauma he then relives by falling in love with women--Rosalind and Juliet--who pose great danger to him because of the families' feud. I argue that the text represents the interaction of his compulsion to repeat his childhood trauma with the cruel customs of medieval Verona, both propelling Romeo into his tragic love affair.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves . . .

    Despite its popularity, some critics have considered Romeo and Juliet flawed because it is "not tragic in the Aristotelian sense on the grounds that the outcome does not flow out of the faults of the characters but results from fortuitous happenings" (Cox 379). Psychoanalytically informed criticism, however, has shown again and again that, if one reads the characters as "real people," their unconscious conflicts will provide a logic or psychologic to their tragic fate. If we think of Romeo--or Romeo's language--as speaking within an analytic situation, what do his words sound like to a clinical ear? I believe they show a reason for his self-destructive behavior.

    Psychoanalytic explorations of Romeo and Juliet have identified a number of unconscious factors which might affect the two protagonists' personalities: primitive pre-oedipal drives and defenses (Rothenberg); intrapsychic hatred dissipated by the feud, thus enhancing passion (Kristeva); a basic linkage of love with the death instinct (Rabkin); miscarried adolescent need to find non-incestuous objects (Cox). For Romeo, critics have suggested phallic violence impelled by a patriarchal structured society (Kahn); inhibition of aggression (Kernberg); depressive character structure (Shapiro).

    These studies transform Romeo and Juliet from a chronicle of fortuitous happenings afflicting young lovers into a representation of the corrosive effect of unconscious forces. These studies, however, do not concentrate on early developmental issues. I believe that we can enrich our understanding if we pretend Romeo is a real person with a childhood and residues of that childhood in his unconscious. To be sure, we need to construct his childhood from his language, since it is never mentioned in the text. But if we are willing to do that, I think we can infer a repressed childhood trauma in Romeo.

    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. Discussing the impact of childhood trauma, Warner (47) points out that early traumata, partiuclarly primal scene experiences, have "a decisive effect upon the person, his neurotic symptoms, his relationships with others, his style of thinking and feeling--in other words, it is a contributing factor in much of what we take an individual person to be."

    I suggest that, if one listens clinically to Romeo's words, one hears indications of just such 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. In particular, I will scan Romeo's words before he meets Juliet for indications of inner conflict caused by childhood trauma and then will examine the "tomb scene" as a reenactment of that trauma.

*        *        *

    As the play opens, friends and family are concerned about Romeo's unhappiness. Shapiro (1964) points out Romeo's depression early in the text manifested in his "despised life" and his conviction of an "untimely death" (1.3.104; all my references are to the Riverside Shakespeare). Shapiro also perceptively detects Romeo's suicidal thoughts before he learns of Juliet's "death." Immediately upon seeing the apothecary's shop, he thinks of suicide (5.1.50-52).

    His friend Benvolio attempts to discover what troubles him: "What sadness lengthens Romeo's hours?" (1.1.163). At first, Romeo is cryptic, evasive; "Not having that which, having, makes them short" (164). Then he reluctantly reveals the true cause of his misery: he is in love with a woman who rejects him: "Out of her favor where I am in love." (167). This woman, Rosaline, is not only uninterested in him, she has no interest in any man: "She hath forsworn to love, and in that vow/ Do I live dead to tell it now" (223). Moreover, Rosaline is a Capulet, a family that has sworn enmity to Romeo's family, the Montagues. But, despite his clear knowledge of her oath of chastity and her lineage, Romeo remains hopelessly in love. He could hardly have chosen a less available woman.

    Romeo considers Rosaline the sole cause of his misery. It is as if his life and happiness were entirely in her hands; he treats his love for her as if it were inevitable (like the the "destiny neurotics" in Freud's "Beyond the Pleasure Principle"). But surely the real cause of his unhappiness is his own choice of such an unavailable woman, not the woman herself. He never asks himself the crucial question: With the many women available to the scion of an aristocratic family, why does he love Rosaline? And if he fell in love with her before he knew of her vows and family, why does he not accept the impossibility of the situation, mourn the loss, and move on to a more available woman? Instead, he perceives himself as helpless in his present situation, unable to heed Benvolio's advice to "forget to think of her" (225) and "examine other beauties." (228).

    Granted, we are dealing with the conventions of courtly love. But if we consider Romeo as a real person, not a convention, his sense of complete dependency on Rosaline for his happiness and his perception of himself as helpless closely resemble the feelings of a small child for its caretaker. To a clinician, such feelings may represent repressed childhood memories displaced onto his current situation. If so, his attachment to the rejecting Rosaline can be interpreted as a reenactment of a childhood rejection.

    From a developmental perspective then, Romeo's perception of his situation is accurate: a woman is the cause of his sadness but the perception is anachronistic. Romeo is unconsciously reliving his childhood, a time of helplessness and dependency on the will of another. At some time in these early years, a trauma might have occurred which he experienced as rejection and against which he defended himself by repression. This repressed trauma now expresses itself in his "choice" of a woman with whom he reenacts the trauma in disguised form.

    According to this construction, Romeo's "Out of her favor, where I am in love" (167) takes on additional meaning. His words reflect repressed memories from childhood, when he loved a woman ("where I am in love") but suffered a traumatic rejection ("Out of her favor"). he now reexperiences this rejection with Rosaline.

     The fact that Rosaline never appears in person in the text then becomes a dual metaphor for Romeo's inner life. On one level, her absence indicates that her identity is unimportant; her only role is someone with whom Romeo repeats his early trauma. (He refers to her by name but once and then only to deny his love for her in 2.3.45.) On another level, her absence symbolizes the loved woman (presumably his mother or perhaps his wet-nurse) who must have been unavailable to him--at least sometimes. Friar Lawrence recognizes the unreal nature of his love for Rosaline and chides him "For doting, not for loving." (2.3.47).

    Benvolio responds in a genuine way to Romeo's "Out of her favor where I am in love" with:

Alas, that love, so gentle in his view,
Should be so tyrannous and rough in proof.

Romeo then replies with a couplet of his own, referring quite conventionally to Cupid:

Alas, that love, whose view is muffled still,
Should, without eyes, see pathways to his will! (1.1.169-172).

On the surface of the exchange, Benvolio contrasts Cupid's gentle appearance with his harsh nature, while Romeo laments that the blindfolded god should find "pathways to his will." But it is Romeo's troubles with Rosaline that they are discussing here--not Cupid's nature. Perhaps then we should read the "his" in both couplets as a reference to Romeo.

    If we take "his" to refer to Romeo, we learn more about Romeo's attachment to Rosaline. Benvolio's is telling Romeo he is naive to think that love is gentle. (Kernberg reads this naivete as an indication of neurotic inhibition.) Love is not always gentle, Benvolio instructs his troubled friend. Love can be harsh, demanding, even overwhelming: "tyrannous and rough in proof." But Benvolio could have spared these words: Romeo's traumatic experiences in childhood--now repeated with Rosaline--have already taught him love's ungentle ways.

    Romeo's couplet in reply (reading "his" as Romeo) mocks Benvolio's "Alas, that love". Romeo informs him that he too knows something of love. He points out that love "should" mocking Benvolio's "should" also be gratifying and "see pathways to his [Romeo's] will." But this is precisely Romeo's problem. Love's pleasures do not find a pathway to his will. Instead they continue to elude him. Accordingly, Romeo's words here focus inquiry into just why it is that love does not find a pathway to his will, in contrast with say, Benvolio, who seems to have little trouble finding love.

    Romeo's couplet can thus be read as a paradox: he seeks a pathway to a woman to whom there is no pathway. In his pursuit of Rosaline, he is a sighted man behaving as if he were "without eyes," his view "muffled still." (Later [1.1.232] he compares his situation to that of a blind man.) In articulating this paradox, Romeo acknowledges that there is something which leads him to search for pathways where obviously none exist. This acknowledgment is important for it suggests that Romeo has some awareness that he is not simply a helpless victim of Rosaline's unavailability, that there is something--perhaps within himself--that compels this futile search for love.

    This acknowledgment, however indirect, seems to cause Romeo distress, for he immediately changes the subject: "Where shall we dine?" Perhaps he is threatened by this confrontation with an enemy even more intimidating than the Capulets: there is something completely unknown within himself that prevents him from finding love. Or, perhaps, on a still deeper level, Romeo changes the subject because even his mere wishful fantasying for love evokes memories of his childhood trauma and the resulting anxiety causes him to think of something more comforting--food.

    Suddenly his thoughts shift again, this time for external reasons: he comes upon a brawl between the two servants of the two families. The sight floods him with imagery and oxymora in the Petrarchan tradition:

        O me, what fray was here?
Yet tell me not for I have heard it all:
Here's much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Dost thou not laugh?  (1.1. 173-182).

Romeo registers his shock with a stream of oxymora, paradoxes, and metaphors so dense that it is difficult for a reader to assimilate. As Whittier observes, "The very speed of the sequence prevents the experience of any single trope, an overabundance of figures in quest of form" (32). For that reason, Romeo's tropes here invite examination for indications of early trauma. This profuse, agitated, contradictory string of words sounds (to this clinician) like the associations of an analysand who might have experienced early childhood trauma. Just as a description of a traumatic experience by a patient can overwhelm a therapist, reproducing in the therapist some of the effect of the origianl trauma, so these tropes can overwhelm a reader. This fits Rothenberg's observation: "When he wants to express wishes, fears, and anxieties that derive from the early stages of mental life, Shakespeare characteristically turns to the use of metaphor" (533).

    On the surface, the words convey Romeo's reaction to the brawl. Overwhelmed by what he sees, he expresses his turmoil by heaping oxymoron upon oxymoron. (Interestingly, later in the play, Juliet also heaps up oxymora in reaction to a brawl: "Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical / Dove-feathered raven [3.2.75-79]. Does she, too, suffer from early trauma?) Romeo is responding to what is arguably the ultimate paradox: love can create hate. Importantly for my reading, he ends the cascade of oxymora with the paradox that preoccupies him now: "This love feel I, that feel no love in this." He thus reverts to the theme of the opening lines of the verse: his hopeless love for Rosaline. It is as if the brawl--and his reaction to it--were merely transient interruptions of his unhappy preoccupation. Thus his reaction to the brawl forms the body of a verse that begins and ends with his attachment to a rejecting woman. Accordingly, one can read Romeo's words as associations to this attachment, as Whittier (29) and Dalsimer (79) do. Interestingly, despite his intense reaction, Romeo does not speak of the brawl itself again in the rest ofthe scene.

    The scene of a brawl is all too familiar to Romeo ("Yet tell me not for I have heard it all"). Still, he reacts with his cascade of exaggerated figures of speech. This overwrought reaction to a rather tame melée--by Early Modern stage standards--seems excessive to me. Dalsimer, who understands Romeo's words here as within the Petrachan convention, suggests that "Shakespeare here is smiling at Romeo" (80). Whittier (29) regards these words as "Romeo's poetic excess." Rabkin's (1967) page number??? view that the oxymora are not simply "a rhetorical device but a definition of [Romeo's] life" is more in accord with my reading. The brawl stirs up these repressed memories and the painful affects connected with them, which then express themselves in his choice of phrase.

    Although he knows brawls well enough, Romeo seems uncertain about what he sees. Is this about hate or love? to most of us the brawl would seem to be about hate and people hurting each other. And yet somehow, for Romeo, it is more about love and people loving each other. Why then, of course! It must be about both: a fusion of hate and love, of hurting and loving, brawling love and loving hate. This confused imagery seems to overwhelm him and he tries to deny the reality of what he sees: "That is not, what it is." He tells himself that he is just imagining the whole thing, creating a mere fantasy, anything, created out of nothing. He is reacting to the sight of the brawl rather like a small child who witnesses a shocking, traumatizing event and who needs to deny the reality of what he perceives and cannot comprehend.

    This defensive denial does not contain the anxiety, though, and the cascade of oxymora continues: with heavy lightness, serious vanity, and the rest. Is this serious, a danger situation? Or is it pleasurable frivolity? Or somehow both? And what are those frenzied forms ("Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms.")? Are they separate people fused together? One misshapen form? It seems to be both: a chimera of separate people who have somehow lost their individuality and blended into misshapen chaos, the "beast with two backs" in Iago's idiom.

    To a clinician, Romeo's tropes here suggest childhood exposure to the primal scene of adults making love and exposure at a time and at an age when he was particularly vulnerable to such a trauma. I say "particularly vulnerable" because many children in the world grow up exposed to primal scnes and do not seem to be traumatized. Also, other childhood traumata might be inferred here, for example, sexual abuse. Romeo's "This love feel I, that feel no love in this" fits such a construction. Nevertheless, primal scene trauma seems to me most likely in view of Romeo's reaction to the brawl. In this construction, memories of the overwhelming feelings and perceptions (really misperceptions) caused by this childhood exposure were repressed but now are mobilized by the sight of the brawl. They then find expression in Romeo's contradictory words.

    By contrast, Mercutio says, after the Capulets' ball, "I'll to my truckle bed" (2.1.39), that is, a trundle-bed bed stored under a bed of regular height and commonly used for children sleeping in the same room with adults. His casualness suggests that he has worked through his exclusion from the parental bed. He can therefore can be more sophisticated about love than Romeo.

    Consistent with this construction, Romeo's "still-waking sleep, that is not what it is" could refer to the impaired reality testing of a drowsy young child in the parental bedroom. (Thus Romeo's "That is not what it is!" can be read as anticipating the current controversy over the reality of memories of childhood trauma.) Half asleep, perhaps his view obscured, he cannot be sure of what he sees: brawling love? loving hate?

    "O heavy lightness, serious vanity" and "feather of lead" would then refer to Romeo's infantile confusion about the physical aspects of parental copulation. Is it a crushing burden ("heavy") or a lightness, vanity, wickedly (heavily, seriously) borne? His oxymoron of "cold fire" could then represent both the passion of the copulating couple and Romeo's own feelings as he watches, perhaps excited, yet ignored and excluded ("cold") from the process. He is--for a while "Out of favor, where I am in love."

    This combination of overwhelming stimulation and rejection occurring early in childhood would also induce hate in Romeo. He would have projected this hate onto the lovemaking couple and thus reinforced his misperception of the process. This in turn contributed to his fantasy that loving is fused with hating and lovemaking merged with hurting. The anxiety associated with these fantasies now compels him to avoid the possibility of consummating his love by attaching himself to a woman sworn to chastity. Romeo refers to this in the penultimate line of this dense, frantic verse: "This love feel I, that feel no love in this."

*        *        *

    Romeo retains this painful attachment to Rosaline, even as he is on his way to the Capulets' feast, only agreeing to go because Rosaline might be there. He tells his friends:

I am too sore enpierced with his shaft
To soar with his light feathers, and so bound
I cannot bound a pitch above a dull woe;
Under love's heavy burden do I sink (1.4.19-23).
Is love a tender thing? It is too rough,
Too rude, too boist'rous, and it pricks like a thorn (25-26).

Referring directly to Rosaline, Romeo extends the imagery of his reaction to the brawl, even using some of the same words: "light feathers, love's heavy burden." His bawdy "pricks like a thorn" plays with his confusion of loving and hurting. As Kriseva observes, "Did not Romeo . .  go to the Capulets' feast knowing it was a feast of hatred?" (221).

    As soon as Juliet appears, however, this painful attachment to Rosaline abruptly vanishes. He falls in love with Juliet at first sight:

Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight.
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night (1.5.52-53).

Suddenly, Romeo is able to heed Benvolio's advice to forget to think of Rosaline, because he finds another beauty--and another Capulet. This immediate substitution of Juliet for Rosaline without an interval of mourning is another indication that his attachment to Rosaline was not based on real love but on a need to relive trauma. (Kristeva suggests that "the ease with which Romeo switches from Rosaline to Juliet may be explained because they both proceed from the same source of hatred, the Capulet family" [225]).

    Since Romeo simply exchanges women without changing himself, the traumatic effect of the primal scene remains with him. Inevitably, it will express itself. But now he loves a woman who returns his love; therefore the trauma no longer expresses itself as it had with Rosaline. Instead, the locus for expressing of the trauma shifts from his troubled relationship with Rosaline to the feud between the families. Romeo will now reenact his trauma within the context of the violence of Verona. The unconscious hate, observes Kriseva, "goes unnoticed because it is swept along by a hatred one can look in the eye--the familial, social curse ismore respectable and honorable than the unconscious hatred" (221). Since Romeo no longer needs an attachment to a rejecting woman for the reenactment, the displacement frees him for a loving relationship with Juliet. He, of course, will have to pay a heavy price for this "freedom."

*        *        *

    The reenactment reaches its culmination in the scene at the tomb. His rival Paris arrives first at the tomb to mourn the seemingly dead Juliet:

Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew--
O woe, thy canopy is dust and stones!--
Which, with sweet water nightly I will dew,
Or wanting that, with tears distill'd by moans (5.3.12-15)

    Paris's "true love's rites" are interrupted by Romeo. He plans love rites of his own: destruction of himself and eternal fusion in love-death with Juliet. "Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight." Furious because he has lost Juliet, he dismisses his servant:

The time and my intents are savage-wild,
More fierce and inexorable far
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.

He tears open the tomb: "Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death, \ Gorg'd with the sweetest morsel of the earth." When Paris tries to stop him, he can scarcely contain his fury:

             I beseech thee youth,
Put not another sin upon my head
By urging me to fury: O, be gone!
By heaven, I love thee better than myself (5.3.61-63).

Paris is unrelenting, however, and Romeo, unable to contain himself any longer, fights and slays him. In doing so, he lives out, in a "womb of death," the "brawling love and loving hate" of the primal scene, expressed earlier mostly in words but now in violent action. He is no longer the withdrawn, inhibited character of Act I who avoids violence and cannot seem to find love. Deranged by the loss of Juliet, his actions now rush precipitously along like his earlier flood of oxymora.

    Romeo then enters the tomb:

O my love! my wife
Death, that hath suck'd the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:
Thou art not yet conquer'd; beauty's ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,
And death's pale flag is not advanced there.
    *    *    *
            Ah, dear Juliet,
Why are thou yet so fair? Shall I believe
That unsubstantial Death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?
For fear of that, I still will stay with thee;
And never from this palace of dim night
Depart again: here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chambermaids (5.3.91-105).

    Romeo (like Paris before him) imagines the tomb a bed-chamber, and so revisits the scene of his childhood trauma. Death makes love to Juliet now; she is his "paramour." Unsubstantial Death is amorous and has sucked the honey of her breath. Yet Juliet lives in death ("beauty's ensign yet \ Is crimson in thy lips"), an oxymoron resonating with his earlier "Sick-health' and "still-waking sleep." As Romeo watches helplessly, Juliet waits breathlessly for Death to "advance his pale flag."

    Romeo now reenacts the primal scene one last time. He is determined finally to frustrate his rival, join the woman he loves forever, and "never from this palace of dim night \ Depart again." For the traumatized child in Romeo, Juliet is not Juliet, nor is she dead. She is mother and now she seems about to abandon him for another, his all-powerful, deadly father. Once again he is the jealous child who wishes to possess the woman he loves and exclude all others. But his efforts are doomed. Failure was part of the original trauma, and he must repeat this failure as well. In defeat, he turns his impotent fury against himself:

            O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world worried flesh. Eyes look your last.
Arms take your last embrace! and lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!
Come bitter conduct, come, unsavory guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark!
Here's to my love! O, true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die (5.3.109-120.

Romeo's "yoke of inauspicious stars" echoes the prophecy he made before meeting Juliet: "Some consequence yet hanging in the stars \ Shall bitterly begin his fearful date"(1.4.106-108), and now he fulfills his own prophecy.

    In taking his own life, Romeo lives out the final act of the primal scene. He makes love to Juliet, embracing, kissing, and finally dying (playing on the well-known Elizabeth metaphor of death for orgasm). In the act of love he destroys himself like a shipwreck. This fusion of lovemaking with destructiveness represents coitus as it is misunderstood by the child: an act of violence between the parents. In the finale, Romeo acts out his earlier, "O brawling love! O loving hate" on Juliet's very body. The fury and guilt of the traumatized child finds final expression through the apothecary's drug. Romeo lives out a fantasy that, by dying, he lives on with Juliet "in everlasting rest." As once he had hoped in childhood, they will "never from this palace of dim night \ Depart again." He thus reenacts his earlier oxymoron "still-waking sleep." He and Juliet are now fused in a "misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms" for all eternity.


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----- (1973). "Infantile Phantasies in Shakespearean Metaphor: Scoptophilia and Fears of Ocular Rape and Castration." Psychoanalytic Review 60: 533-556.

Shapiro, Stephen. (1964) "Romeo and Juliet: Reversals, Contraries, Transformations and Ambivalence." College English 25: 498-501.

Warner, William Beatty (1986). Chance and the Text of Experience: Freud, Nietzsche, and Shakespeare's Hamlet. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Whittier, Gayle. (1989). "The Sonnet's Body and the Body Sonnetized in Romeo and Juliet." Shakespeare Quarterly 40: 27-41.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Marvin Krims "Romeo's Childhood Trauma? -- "What fray was here?"". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available April 12, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: October 22, 1999, Published: November 26, 1999. Copyright © 1999 Marvin Krims