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At the heart of the play’s themes of feuding families, ill-timing, and misfortune lies the true agent that defines Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy; the impulsive and reckless decisions of the young lovers determine, in some way, the tragic outcomes that are mistakenly attributed to fate throughout, and Shakespeare’s exaggerated account serves as moral instruction of what can happen when choices of this magnitude are made unadvisedly. Although fate does play a part in the actions of the play, it merely serves as instruction to the protagonists. Fate is responsible for maintaining natural order and, as long as this is achieved, the destiny of the lovers lies in their own decisions. Fate serves as a guide, giving moral lessons to the protagonists and even warns them of future disaster. Despite the generosity of the stars, however, they continue to rebel and this, in turn, leads to their demise.
A common device of Shakespearian tragedy is the “tragic flaw,” also known as “hamartia,” defined as an “inherent defect or shortcoming in the hero of a tragedy, who is in other respects a superior being favored by fortune” (“hamartia,” def.). Ultimately, the “tragic flaws” of both Romeo and Juliet are their beliefs that, without regard to the warnings and guidance of a higher order such as fate, they are above the laws of man; they make decisions without regard to consequence or accountability for the chaos they produce. It is evident in Romeo and Juliet that the impulsive actions of the protagonists are not attributed to inexperience in youth, but rather a reflection of their tragic flaws. In the fourth act of the play where her father asks where she has been, Juliet replies, “Where I have learned me to repent the sin of disobedient oppositionâ€¦” (4.2.17-18). Shakespeare’s audience, of course, knows that this statement is merely Juliet’s method of sustaining peace at home until she can go through with her plan to fake her own death. Regarding the father-daughter patriarchal structure during this time, however, her words are a distinct reflection of what is expected of her in obeying the laws her father demands. This is, perhaps, Shakespeare’s way of ironically revealing his moral lesson to his audience through the very character who provides the example, revealing what Juliet should do. These words expose her knowledge that obedience provides order, and subsequently, the audience is less sympathetic to her because she does not listen to her own words, those of Friar Laurence, or the warnings of fate.
Romeo also reveals his awareness of the Prince’s law and suggests its importance for social order. In the beginning of Act 3, when Mercutio and Tybalt are fighting, Romeo comes between them and says, “The Prince expressly hath forbid this bandying in Verona streets” (3.1.82-83). Romeo seems to abandon his recklessness here, but it doesn’t last long; he kills Tybalt only a few lines later. Granted, he is revenging his friend’s death, but this action marks the beginning of the deadly chaos seen throughout the rest of the play. Although he doesn’t agree that a tragic flaw leads to the lamentable ending of the play, Fredson Bowers, in his article “Dramatic Structure and Criticism: Plot in Hamlet,” does, however, believe that “the climax in Romeo’s decision to fight Tybalt involves a personal choice that carries moral responsibility and is therefore morally determinate” (210).
As the reader can see, tragedy follows a course of increasingly destructive events, and following the scene which marks the point of no return for Romeo, in this case the murder of Tybalt, madness inevitably follows. A. C. Bradley describes this sequence of events in relation to chance by stating that, “â€¦any large admission of chance into the tragic sequence would certainly weaken, and might destroy, the sense of the causal connection of character, deed, and catastrophe” (Bradley 64). Character represents the tragic flaw; the deed is the climax that leads, then, to madness which is the catalyst for catastrophe. Romeo’s madness becomes more evident as the reader can see his actions become increasingly less reasonable, beginning with the climactic scene and only ending with his death. Romeo’s madness is displayed through both his irrational actions and the reactions of Friar Laurence and Romeo himself. After Romeo learns of his banishment from Verona, his response, in both language and action, provokes Friar Laurence to proclaim, “O, then I see that madmen have no ears” (3.3.61). Here, he recognizes the madness, so quickly evident in Romeo, spawned from Romeo’s banishment following the death of Tybalt. Later in the play, Romeo’s madness intensifies to such an extent that he himself recognizes it when he says, “The time and my intents are savage-wild, more fierce and more inexorable far than empty tigers or the roaring sea” (5.3.37-39). Here, Romeo’s admission of his madness is Shakespeare’s way of explicitly informing the audience that Romeo has indeed lost his sensibilities. The madness seen in the previous lines leads directly to catastrophe, namely the death of Romeo. His insanity, before an internal conflict, is now outwardly admitted to Paris when he says, “Live, and hereafter say a madman’s mercy bid thee run away” (5.3.66-67). These lines represent Romeo’s submission to his madness as he rushes to his intended suicide. Much like Romeo’s insanity, Juliet experiences symptoms following the climactic scene of the play. This is recognized by Juliet’s mother when she states, “Some grief shows much of love, but much grief shows still some want of wit” (3.5.72-73). Although Lady Capulet believes she is seeing Juliet’s despair over Tybalt’s death, her visible display of sorrow is derived directly from her grief over Romeo’s banishment, and this grief is but the first sign of a creeping irrationality that will lead Juliet to her end. Her irrationality lapses into madness as Juliet begins to hallucinate before drinking Friar Lawrence’s potion, as can be seen when she says, “O, look! Methinks I see my cousin’s ghost seeking out Romeo that did spit his body upon a rapier’s point” (4.4.57). Directly after this statement, she drinks the potion, an act that even Friar Lawrence deems “desperate” (4.1.69), exorcising, through her action, the madness that has acutely built up in her since Romeo’s banishment.
Throughout Romeo and Juliet, fate is referenced in many different ways, yet all passages seem to be directed to the same idea of a higher power watching over the “natural order” (Kastan 16) of the characters, but the protagonists of the play use fate as a source in which to place blame so not to be held accountable for the decisions they make. Throughout, this higher power has been named “the stars” (1.4.107), “fortune” (1.2.57), “heavens” (4.4.121), “fate” (3.1.114) “nature” (3.2.80), and each time Romeo or Juliet makes a rash decision and faces the consequences of the same, they complain that fate is the cause. Fate serves as a help for the young couple, however, and this becomes evident in that, each time the play reaches a critical point important to the play’s outcome, the protagonists are warned. This idea of warning from a supernatural or ghostly source is a common strategy in Shakespearian tragedies. Here, Romeo is first warned in a dream which Mercutio calls “Queen Mab” (1.4.53), right before he is about to meet Juliet for the first time. The dream warns him not to go to the Capulet ball, and fate further guides his decision by planting uncertainty in his decision as a warning of what will happen if he does go. Romeo states, “I fear too early, for my mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the starsâ€¦” (1.4.106), and although he is affected by this warning and aware of the consequences if he goes, only five lines later, he ignores the warning with “On, lusty gentlemen” (1.4.113). This is an active decision by Romeo to go to the ball, yet in the previous sentence, he says “Direct my sail!” (1.4.113). Thus, although Romeo receives help from fate through guidance, warnings of impending disaster, and the free will to avoid decisions, he repeatedly makes bad choices of which he is not willing to take responsibility, but rather, blames the very source that helps him. Another example of this warning comes when Romeo is leaving for Mantua, and this is the last time Juliet sees him. This time, both have a feeling of impending doom. Juliet says, “O God, I have an ill-divining soul! Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low, as one dead in the bottom of a tomb” (3.5.54-56), and Romeo responds with, “And trust me, love, in my eye so do you. Dry sorrow drinks our blood.” (3.5.58-59). Juliet’s lines are spoken just three lines after she asks Romeo if they will ever see each other again. Of course, they do not meet again, and these lines mark the next phase of chaos, death, and bad decisions which conclude the play. There are, however, two more references to dreams that correctly reveal encounters, tragic in nature, which could have been avoided. First, Juliet imagines going mad inside the Capulet tomb, blatantly declaring a warning from fate that is being played inside her own daydream. When she says, “O, if I wake, shall I not be distraught, envisioned with all these hideous fears, â€¦ and, in this rage, with some great kinsman’s bone as with a club dash out my desp’rate brains” (4.4.49-53), her concerns are actually a proclamation of fate’s warning that this rash action will eventually lead to her demise, a warning which she promptly dismisses as she drinks the vial only a few lines later. The second of these references to dreams lies in Romeo’s statement, “I dreamt my lady came and found me dead – strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think” (5.1.6-7). Romeo does not recognize the implications of this dream, which serves as the voice of fate. Instead, his irrationality spins this message into a form that he is willing to accept, as is seen by the following lines, “and breathed such life with kisses in my lips that I revived and was an emperor” (5.1.8-9). Due to Romeo’s maddening obsession with his infatuation, he is unable to decipher the true message of this dream. His irrational actions have set him on a path that will lead to his death.
A.C. Bradley believes that tragedy is generally based around a character of prominence and is a story of “human actions producing exceptional calamity and ending in the death of such a man” (Bradley 64). This element of tragedy, consisting of specific actions that lead to a catastrophe and result in the death of a prominent character, is a classic theme among Shakespearean tragedies. One of the most common aspects of this basis is the element of death, both foreshadowed and realized, as a conclusion to the deranged actions of the primary characters in Shakespeare’s works. This theme can be seen in many of his plays, such as Hamlet and Othello, but none more so than Romeo and Juliet, where the theme of death is constantly reiterated from the initial prologue to the conclusion of the play. For instance, when paralleling the young lovers’ courtship to the different stages of the play, one can see these recurrent statements explicitly stated, all of which indicate death’s impending arrival as the natural conclusion of the couple’s consistent irrational actions. The first of these decisions occurs before Romeo is to attend the Capulet’s ball. He begins to feel himself traveling down an unnatural path and says, “my mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the starsâ€¦of a despised life, closed in my breast, by some vile forfeit of untimely death” (1.5.106-111). Although Romeo, to some extent, feels fate’s warning and the consequences of his actions, he proceeds to Capulet’s ball, taking his first step toward his ultimately tragic end. Furthermore, after they meet, Juliet immediately decides he is married and says, “â€¦my grave is like to be my wedding bed” (1.9.131-132) before she even learns the name of her idol. This is only the first of many such examples of an irrational thought process that will continue throughout the rest of the story; examples of this unreasonable belief that death is their only alternative further displays their refusal to accept the situation and work toward a solution. Instead, death provides an easy solution. By limiting herself to only two options, Juliet consistently bases her decisions on this belief, despite all warnings that she is essentially running headlong to her own death. The next step in the progression of this affair, the marriage of the young lovers, is yet again marked by the presence of death. Upon arriving at Friar Lawrence’s cell for the proximate ceremony, Romeo declares that, “love-devouring death do what he dare – it is enough I may but call her mine” (2.5.7-8). Once again, the presence of death is foreshadowed at a pinnacle point, and Romeo and Juliet make another aberrant decision. By explicitly challenging death, Romeo is seemingly aware that his mortality is imminent, but he still continues down this path. He does not consider that Juliet’s actions are mirroring his and leading her to the same conclusion.
The couple’s impetuous drive toward rash decisions is unmistakable throughout the rest of the play. Although they are aware that the opportunity of their continued relationship will ultimately never be presented, the two protagonists pursue death from the beginning. These examples solidify the argument that Romeo and Juliet is a prime example of Shakespeare’s lesson that death as a natural consequence of the impetuous actions of those who disregard the admonitions of fate.
Throughout the realm of Shakespeare’s tragedies, another theme persists. While the protagonists in Shakespearean tragedies make conscious choices determining their own paths, most commonly against the subtle and blatant warnings of fate, there is a constant element that renders the execution of these decisions compulsory; this idea is known as situational conflict. In his article “Art and Artifice in Shakespeare,” Elmer Edgar Stoll states, “The core of tragedy is situation; and a situation is a character in contrast, and perhaps also in conflict, with other characters or with circumstances” (Stoll 69). This idea that there must be a conflict to a tragedy is not a novel idea, but the idea that there must be a situation in conflict with character or circumstance suggests that an author would need to define this situation, either implicitly or explicitly, at some point prior to the climax of the story. Following this design of creating a situational conflict that will force the protagonists to make decisions that will lead them down either fate’s implied path of natural order or along a course of their own devising, a tragic plot must contain an action that forces this conflict. Shakespeare was not oblivious to this motif; in fact, the construction of his tragedies suggests his acceptance of this template as a method of depicting a tragic plot. In the bulk of Shakespeare’s tragedies, there is a common event that, apart from the climax and generally between the middle and end of the first act, explicitly defines this situation. The act typically causes conflict in the protagonists’ state of affairs, which sets the stage for the downward spiral of decisions that the characters make. While in most cases influenced by another character in the play, such as Iago’s announcement of his plot to deceive Othello or Lady MacBeth’s persuasion of MacBeth to kill King Duncan, this triggering event causes the protagonists in Shakespeare’s tragedies, either immediately or inevitably, to make the initial decision that will decide their fate. Romeo and Juliet does not differ from this scheme; the triggering event and the situational conflict are both present within the same location stated previously. Specifically, this event is caused by the attempts of Benvolio and Mercutio’s to assuage Romeo’s concerns about attending the Capulet’s ball. While Romeo initially agrees to accompany them to the event, he soon shows no interest in the night’s activities. He says that he will “be a candle-holder and look on,” and shortly thereafter begins to question his decision to attend the ball at all when he states, “â€¦we mean well in going to this masque, but ’tis no wit to go” (1.4.38, 1.4.46-47). Although he is persuaded by Benvolio and Mercutio, the final decision to attend is ultimately made by Romeo. This choice places Romeo in a situation where conflict is eminent; he walks into the house of the Capulets and woos a lady who he knows, by being present at this event, has ties to his enemy. Therefore, although Benvolio and Mercutio attempt to persuade Romeo to attend the ball and “examine other beauties” (1.1.221), his choice to do so is the triggering event. This is Romeo’s first chance to decide whether or not to enter into a situation of conflict and, as with many of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists, Romeo makes the wrong choice.
There is some debate about the effectiveness of the moral lessons in Shakespeare’s tragedies. In his article “Shakespeare,” Walter Raleigh believes, “There is no moral lesson to be read, except accidentally, in any of Shakespeare’s tragedies” (Raleigh 66). John Dryden, on the other hand, argues, in his article entitled “The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy”, that tragedy is “an imitation of one entire, great and probable action; not told, but represented; which by moving in us fear and pity, is conducive to the purging of those two passions in our minds” (Dryden 24). The conscious decisions of the characters in Shakespearean tragedy are not only pertinent to the advancement of the tragic plot, but also morally determinate. Shakespeare reveals this idea through fate’s warnings, the dialogue of the characters, imagery, the advice of characters such as Friar Laurence, finally, in the epilogue, a common element in Shakespeare’s tragedies.
The definition of a “morally determinate action” is significant in the argument of free will versus fate in Romeo and Juliet because it signifies that “the character is aware of the issue and nevertheless makes a choice that is inherently fatal” (210). This allows for an exchange of the audience’s sympathy for the lovers with a feeling of contentment in knowing that, instead of a dismal view of fate’s inevitable defeat of innocent lovers, the protagonists have control of their lives and pursue tragedy through their own disobedience. The audience is able to enjoy the play because they too have free will to determine their own fates, yet they also come away with the lesson Shakespeare teaches about the moral responsibility of one’s actions. Although the interjection of fate has been discussed previously, the moral reprehension announced by some of the characters in the play regarding Romeo and Juliet’s actions also serve as a measure by which to gauge the moral accountability of the couple’s actions. For instance, Friar Lawrence is appalled by Romeo’s exploits with Juliet at the Capulet’s ball, which is evident when he states, “Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear, so soon forsaken? Young men’s love then lies not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes” (2.2.66-68). Essentially, Friar Lawrence is expressing his distaste in the immorality of his decision to wed another woman not a day after his lamentation for Rosaline. This decision is morally reprehensible because it exposes the fickleness of Romeo’s love and the significance of entering into a marriage without understanding the significance of such an act. This type of reaction is evident again when Friar Laurence castigates Romeo, this time for his effeminate tears and “unreasonable fury” (3.3.110). Here, Friar Laurence remarks, “Hast thou slain Tybalt? Wilt thou slay thyself, and slay thy lady that in thy life lives by doing damned hate upon thyself?” (3.3.135-137). Romeo’s decisions, in this case, are blameworthy because of the selfishness of his statements of suicide, as he does not consider Juliet’s welfare. He is further subject to blame when one contemplates Romeo’s previous actions and his failure to recognize the mercy that the Prince has shown him. His selfishness is directly related to the disjointed nature of Romeo’s decisions; rather than considering the implications of his decisions, he initiates a course of action based on his brash and reckless predilection. The epilogue in Romeo and Juliet repeats the events that unfold in the private counsel of Friar Lawrence’s cell, and while his account describes the rash actions of Romeo and Juliet, he openly accepts responsibility for his own part in the scandalous event. Friar Laurence is quickly pardoned for his misdeed. The outcome of the epilogue reveals the moral lesson; one must face responsibility for his or her actions, and it is better to accept the outcome than to run away. This is evident when Friar Lawrence pronounces, “if aught in this miscarried by my fault, let my old life be sacrificed, some hour before his time, unto the rigour of severest law” (5.3.266-268). He accepts complete responsibility for his part in the events that lead to the young lovers’ deaths and implies his foreknowledge that his actions could result in punishment, indicating that the Friar considered this before acting and juxtaposing this with the actions of Romeo and Juliet. By revealing to the audience both an avoidable situation and the reasons for the tragic ending, Shakespeare succeeds in providing a moral lesson that serves to “purge the passion” (Dryden 25).
The implementation of a tragic flaw, madness, neglecting fate’s warnings, death, a triggering event, actions which are morally determinate, and the moral lesson provide a clear view of Shakespearean tragedy. The causal relationships between the elements of tragedy, combined with common literary features associated with plot, identifying the triggering event that presents the situational conflict which will lead to the climatic peak of the narrative, the resulting madness that builds in the principals, the ineluctable conclusion of death, and the consummate lesson learnt upon the end of the tale. Throughout this chronology, each step is traversed by a morally determinate adjudication based from, in this case, the main characters’ tragic flaws, and neglecting the karmic guidance offered by other characters as well as by their own admissions of feelings and dreams. Romeo and Juliet adhere to each of these elements, not on a scarce occasion or two, but continuously and doggedly throughout the course of the story, with each factor intertwining with another to form the basis for which the primary idea related to the main characters’ decisions may rest; Romeo and Juliet’s actions were undertaken too impetuously, and while fate did play a role in attempting to advise the young couple as to the natural order of their situation, they exercise their free will to interminably disregard these warnings and set themselves down the slippery slope that results in their undoing.
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