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Romeo and Juliet


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Looking through some essays I wrote, found this one:



To what extent does Shakespeare make use in Romeo and Juliet of the idea of inevitability traditionally associated with tragedy?



There are a number of elements in the plot that give the sense of an inevitable outcome. The framing device of the prologue establishes in the audience’s mind that our protagonists are a ‘pair of star-crossed lovers’ (1.1.6) who are fated by their ‘death-marked love’ (1.1.11) to a tragic end. The coupling of death and love is an ever present motif in the play to remind the audience this is not a comedy. Some might argue that the play is a ‘hybrid’ in some of its comedy devices and features, such as the ‘young love’ theme and the intrigues to overcome the barriers to marriage, but the prologue unequivocally defines the play’s tragic intent. The subsequent chain of unfolding events is such that it binds the protagonists to an inescapable tragic fate that has already been proclaimed in the prologue: ‘Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife’ (8.1.1). The audience’s knowledge of the play’s outcome gives a dramatic irony to events, increasing our emotional engagement with their hopeless situation.


The protagonists reinforce the argument that they are propelled by external forces that freewill cannot manipulate. Both Romeo and Juliet have premonitions of disaster, with Romeo sensing ‘some vile forfeit of untimely death’ (1.4.109) even before he meets Juliet. Of course, vulnerability in such a violent society makes such expressions of anxiety seem natural, but they do convey to the audience a feeling of inevitability. Friar Laurence summarises this viewpoint of the protagonists being at the mercy of an inescapable power in the play’s conclusion:


‘A greater power than we can contradict

Hath thwarted our intents.’




Maybe it is a natural escape for the Friar to blame, and personify into reality, ‘Unhappy fortune’ when his scheming has led to the deaths of the young lovers. He may fear the level of his own responsibility for their end or as a religious person wish to acknowledge that it is a divine plan to bring healing through suffering. In this circumstance the death of the lovers is a sacrifice, it is the inevitable price to be paid to bring reconciliation between the feuding houses. The impression on the audience throughout the play is that the lovers are subject to external powers. Either way the audience may feel the dice loaded: whether it is the ‘chance’ meeting of Romeo and Capulet’s servant requiring some help with his reading or Friar John failing to deliver a letter because he is fearful of ‘infection’.


However, the plot structure is not merely loaded and threaded with ‘coincidence’. Certainly the feud between the two households is a key driver of the plot since neither Romeo nor Juliet can escape the destructive demands of the world it creates. They are fenced in by the expectations of their feuding households, which poisons their attempts to free themselves. In keeping with the Aristotelian understanding of tragedy there is an inescapable transition from a state of happiness to one of misery, or in Romeo and Juliet from ecstasy to despair. Mercutio is a key character in forcing this transition, reflecting a society that often threatens to descend into violent disorder. Romeo attempts to free himself from the feuding and pacify Tybalt despite the insults: ‘And so, good Capulet, which name I tender/As dearly as mine own, be satisfied’ (3.1.70). In Zeffirelli’s film production Tybalt is satisfied and begins to walk away, but it is Mercutio’s intervention that propels the action into a violent conclusion. He finds Romeo placating of Tybalt a ‘dishonourable’ act and through insult provokes the volatile Tybalt. Ironically, when Romeo attempts to intervene to prevent bloodshed, he accidently causes the death of Mercutio and now he is reminded and bound by the society’s codes of honour and friendship:


In my behalf: my reputation stained

With Tybalt’s slander-Tybalt, that an hour

Hath been my cousin. O sweet Juliet,

Thy beauty hath made me effeminate,

And in my temper softened valour’s steel.’ (3.1.111-115)




He may blame ‘black fate’, the ‘accident’ of Mercutio’s death, but it is society’s inescapable expectations that colour his decision to take revenge. Despite his love for Juliet he cannot make himself independent of social expectations. After all he is a product of that society and embedded in his moral and emotional make-up are the flaws of that society. In this world the abstract notion of ‘valour’ becomes the tangible reality of ‘steel’. Inevitably, this leads him to seek revenge for his friend and so perpetuates the cycle of violence that fuels the seemingly inescapable feuding. Romeo proves himself to be as ‘well-governed’ and flawed as the rest of Verona’s youth in not letting the law decide Tybalt’s fate.


However, neither Romeo nor Juliet are simple victims of external forces. Their characterisation is not static, but fluid, developing as events unfold. Romeo is initially presented as a rather vacuous Petrarchan lover pursued some ideal of womanhood that is, of course, unattainable. The picture created is of an immature, insubstantial youth that the audience and his friends do not take seriously. Mercutio in particular mocks Romeo as ‘the likeness of a sigh’ ( 2.1.9). The simile pinpoints Romeo’s nebulous state. At this point in the play the audience is more inclined to associate such a ‘weightless’ stereotype fitted for comedy rather than the depth of tragedy. A tragic outcome does not seem inevitable. The easy fickleness with which Romeo transfers his love from Rosaline to Juliet reinforces our doubts about his seriousness. It is a doubt that Shakespeare makes explicit through Friar Laurence’s disapproval: ‘Women may fall when there’s no strength in men’ (2.2.80). However, the difference is that Juliet returns his love and is certainly not the proverbial ‘weaker vessel’. We now have a situation that is no longer the abstract of unrequited love, but real, where actions have inevitable consequences.


The love between Romeo and Juliet quickly gathers a momentum that makes them careless of the consequences. As Friar Laurence warns: ‘These violent delights have violent ends’ (2.5.11). The forceful repetition of ‘violent’ reinforces his warning. They see only themselves and Romeo in particular fails to recognise the dangers that threaten their lives. At least Juliet has an insight, or foreboding, on their recklessness:


‘I have no joy of this contract tonight:

It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,’




It could be argued that compulsive behaviour, that is so focussed on self and not others, is destructive and will inevitably lead to a tragic end. To survive in society all citizens must compromise their individuality otherwise anarchy will ensue. Neither Romeo nor Juliet are willing to make any compromises. We may see them as flawed characters since they conclude that suicide is their only option at the play’s conclusion, though the intensity of their love may give this tragic outcome a sense of inevitability. Certainly the advice of Friar Laurence to ‘love moderately’ (2.5.14) feels moralising and detached when seeking to guide that love. Yet Romeo’s language is littered with references coupling love and death, and when he offers to stab himself he provokes Friar Laurence to denounce his ‘unreasonable fury’:


I thought thy disposition better tempered,

Hast thou slain Tybalt? Wilt thou slay thyself,

And slay thy lady, that in thy life lives,




The assonance of ‘slay and ‘lady’ reinforces his point. Romeo is proving himself as volatile and dangerous as Tybalt and Mercutio. We may feel such a flawed nature, so hungry in the moment, will inevitably meet a similar end. Friar Laurence reminds him that in time that there may be reconciliation and a pardoning from the Prince. Romeo does not have the restraint to rationalise the future in this way because he is driven by his emotions. The pace of the play conveys an inevitable compulsion as events rush to their tragic end. It is not a society that thinks and waits, even Capulet’s arrangements for Juliet’s marriage are hastened after Tybalt‘s death.


However, an audience will tend to empathise with Romeo and Juliet in performance, with their innocence and vulnerability, otherwise their end would not be deemed as tragic. The fact that Juliet’s youthfulness is emphasized in Capulet’s marriage negotiations, she is not yet fourteen, further engages the audience. We feel her isolation as her only confidante, the Nurse, fails to comprehend her love for Romeo and admire her defiance and courage to escape her father use of her as ‘property’. Of course, the audience will realise that such an independence of spirit, idealisation of love, cannot conform to the status and money-based ambitions of the arranged marriage. A tragic outcome feels inevitable as the play progresses, as indeed the prologue predicted.




McEvoy, S. (2006, 2nd edn) Shakespeare: the basics, London, Routledge.


Levenson, J. (ed.) (2000) The Oxford Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Oxford, Oxford University Press.


BBC Television Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet


Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet 1968

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  • 3 weeks later...

I just know this is a great read.

I have cataracts in both eyes....

so I cant tell you how tough it is to read.....

I just wanted to acknowledge your sharing

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Larsen M. Callirhoe

hi carlo, please get those cataracts removed before it damages your eyesight.


badge this is excellent. i see the play romeo and juliet from different viewpoints which is great. shakespere is one of my favorite authors next to anne rice, stephen king, agatha christies, and two others lol.


my favorite play is mcbeth than romeo and juliet.


enjoyed the prose essay much.



larsen aka victor

Larsen M. Callirhoe

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If you enjoy Macbeth I can recommend this production on DVD:




I too enjoy Macbeth, despite the fact it is evil that drives the play. Interesting how Lady Macbeth disintegrates with the consequences of her actions, but Macbeth gains an appetite for more power. One is destroyed by guilt and seems to become weak, the other does not dwell on guilty thoughts and appears the stronger for it.


Who has the greater 'attraction'?



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Larsen M. Callirhoe

it has been over 15 years since i last read romeo and juliet and macbeth while i was in junior college. i havent seen either one on dvd since the early 90's. i would say that lady macbeth drives the actions of the two men because of lust or what ever you consider this attraction to her. i need to reread this before i comment any futher. i have suffered brain damage in my acciident in 1996 and just realised i don't6 remember everything about macbeth. i had a book with several of shakesphere's works in it but gave it away after i got injured and moved from florida to ohio in the usa. i wish i had kept that book. i do think i am going to order romeo and juliet and macbeth on dvd. i love both those plays and can watch them over and over again. i wish i had kept that book lol.



i will get back with yopu on that question if i can find macbeth listed on the internet somewhere. i can't believe i can't recall those details lol. i remember going over romeo and juliet in high school in college and i know we did macbeth but my mind is a blank on that play right now.



Larsen M. Callirhoe

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Orsen Wells in Macbeth was top notch.

I saw Romeo with leanardo Da-something......

not good

you'd think someone, by now, would have a quality movie done.....

in black and white too !!

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