“Romeo and Juliet” is considered by most people to be Shakespeare’s most tragic work. Two young people die for their love for each other – what can be purer, romantic and tragic than that. But is it as simple as that? What does actually make the play so tragic? Before we can discuss the tragic aspects of Romeo and Juliet, we must first understand the meaning of the term ‘tragedy’. The Chambers Dictionary defines tragedy as ” a type of drama dealing with tragic events and often involving the fall of an honourable, worthy and important protagonist, often with elevated action and language; a play of this type; the art of such drama; any piece of literature, music, etc ending with disaster for the protagonist; a disaster, any sad story or turn of events; any event involving killing”.
Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy by the definition in the dictionary. Both lead roles, Romeo and Juliet, die in the play, therefore making it tragic. However, there are many more factors that are typical of Shakespeare’ tragedies that occur and some factors which make the play less tragic. Juliet is a more tragic figure because she has no real control over her life at all. The arrival of Romeo and their subsequent love affair gives her an alternative to a life controlled by her father and his choice of husband for her – she could run away and live a romantic life with Romeo. In the end, both Romeo and Paris are dead so even if she survived there would be no future for Juliet. The main characters in Shakespeare’s plays are often quite innocent and are swept along by other events happening at the time, for example, the feud between the two families led to the breakdown of communication between the lovers resulting in their death.
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The tragic events are foreshadowed throughout the course of the play. The great tension between the two families is apparent to all. In Act lll, Scene l, Benvolio says: ‘I pray thee, good Mercutio, let’s retire: The day is hot, the Capels are abroad, And if we meet we shall not scape a brawl, For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.’ Romeo has a premonition in his sleep…” I dreamt my lady came and found me dead”, he admits at the beginning of Act 5. Although the dream continues with Juliet reviving him with a kiss, this dark dream may mean that Romeo subconsciously knew that his relationship with Juliet would lead to an unhappy end.
There is another element that has a big part in the play – fate. Both main characters are in the wrong place at the wrong time and were never meant to be together. Shakespeare, through the narrator, calls them ‘Star-crossed lovers’ which suggests that they have no control over their fate. Romeo is aware that he is unlucky and that fate is against him as he says ‘I defy you stars’. He blames fate for what happens to him. At the very end, the Prince of Verona says ‘ See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, That heaven finds to kill your joys with love.’ He tells the families that they were being punished by the death of their offspring for the long-lasting dispute between the Capulet’s and the Montague’s.
Aspects of Romeo and Juliet’s personalities also add to the tragedy. Romeo is passionate; his heart rules his head and he acts on his immediate feelings without stopping to think of the consequences. He is also fickle – first, he’s in love with Rosaline, then he suddenly falls in love with Juliet without a thought of his former ‘love’. Romeo’s vengeance for Mercutio’s death overwhelms him. Minutes before, he had encouraged Mercutio to “put thy rapier up”, but then he fights, killing Tybalt. Juliet threatens suicide believing it’s the only way to escape her troubled surroundings. She cries, ‘Do thou but calls my resolution wise and with this knife I’ll help it presently,’ crying this in Act III, scene ii, wanting her life to end because she has no other route to getaway.
Both Romeo and Juliet are impatient. After only a few hours from first meeting Romeo, Juliet says ‘if thy bent of love is honourable, thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow.’ They rush into marriage while disobeying their parents without even discussing the situation with them. The Friar warns Romeo that he is too impatient ‘wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast.’ Which he says after Romeo tells the Friar of the wedding plans. Despite his misgivings, the friar still marries them. If the friar had been more responsible the outcome could have been less tragic for everyone.
The timing of the events is also very unfortunate for the young couple. In Act III, Scene I Tybalt shouts, “Boy this shall not excuse the injuries That thou hast done me; therefore turn and draw,” after this statement, he starts the last fight of his life. This last tragedy brings both men to their grave and leaves both families more caught up in the rage of each other. Tybalt and Mercutio’s murder on the wedding day, Juliet’s arranged marriage to Paris decided just before meeting Romeo, the letter from the Friar addressed to Romeo in Mantua is delayed and when Juliet wakes up too late to find her lover dead. These events all add to the tragedy. Juliet’s relationship with her father declines over the course of the play. At the beginning of the play, Juliet’s father does not insist she marries Paris, but by the time Romeo has killed Tybalt and is on the run, Capulet changes his mind and insists on the marriage, telling Juliet to ‘go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church, Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.”
He is extremely rude and harsh to her and makes it clear that she has no choice: “I tell thee what: get thee to church a’ Thursday, Or never after look me in the face.” Juliet knows she cannot obey her father – she is already secretly married to Romeo, and she foretells the tragic outcome when she warns her mother that if the marriage to Paris is not delayed they will have to “make the bridal bed In that dim monument where Tybalt lies”. Juliet now knows there will be no possibility of reconciliation with her father. Her union with Romeo has lost Juliet her family whatever the outcome.
‘Romeo and Juliet’ was written as a tragedy, and is still seen as such over four hundred years later. A modern-day audience may react differently to some aspects of the play – the treatment of women and the age of Juliet, for example. In our society, Juliet would still be considered a child and Romeo would be in as much trouble for his marriage to underage Juliet as he would be for the murder of Tybalt. Yet, despite that, our sympathies are with the young couple who were not responsible for the feud between their parents but who had to suffer the consequences. The tragedy is inevitable from the beginning. From the moment Romeo first sees Juliet and they share the first kiss they hurtle headlong towards their death.