Throughout Romeo and Juliet the theme of conflict is conveyed in many forms, mostly through physical violence; reflected in the era of the Renaissance where there was political turmoil and many European nations were at war. Shakespeare presents the theme in other forms as well; family versus family, sacred versus profane, parent versus child and language versus inner conflict. Conflict is a key in the structure of the play; it is highlighted in the beginning, middle and end. As an audience we are constantly being reminded of conflict which is reflected within the era the play was written in. The Renaissance was the 'rebirth' of classical learning and was also the time when Science challenged many traditional Christian beliefs which resulted in Catholics fighting Protestants; the Gunpowder plot and the Spanish Armada. Shakespeare chose to dramatise conflict as it was the context in which he was writing plays. It is therefore arguable that this period was characterised by irreconcilable opposites in politics, religion and art. Nothing in the world can exist without its opposite- just as love cannot exist without hate, violence cannot exist without peace.
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The theme of conflict is instantly introduced in the Prologue of the play. We are told that the families are both of equal status and have an 'ancient grudge' suggesting that the conflict has been on-going for many generations. We are told that the conflict will 'break to new mutiny' and are reminded again of their death through the 'parents rage'. Romeo and Juliet are described as a 'pair of star-crossed lovers' informing the audience that nothing can change their fate which is itself another form of conflict.
The conflict between violence and peace is apparent from the start of the play where '[Sampson and Gregory [enter] with swords and bucklers... [in] a public place]'. This informs us that the Capulet family are more violent than the Montague family; this can also be shown through the choice of words the Capulet family use: 'A dog of the house of Montague moves me'. In Act 1, scene 1 Benvolio tries to maintain the peace yet Tybalt 'hates the word', Tybalt does not literally hate the word 'peace' but hates the actions of the word put into practice. When the Prince enters to stop the fray between Tybalt and Benvolio, violence is required in order to maintain the peace and this demonstrates a form of irony. The Prince uses animalistic terminology to describe the meaningless fight between Tybalt and Benvolio: 'You beasts'. Shakespeare has chosen to begin the play with a violent scene to emphasis the 'ancient grudge' between the families.
There is further evidence of conflict between violence and peace in Act 3, scene 1 when the 'day is hot'. Here the pathetic fallacy foreshadows later events. Romeo is described as a 'villian' by Tybalt as his pride is injured since Romeo attended the Capulet ball. Physical conflict then follows as Mercutio views Romeo as a coward. As an audience we realise that the play has turned from a comedy into a tragedy after Mercutio's death. Mercutio declares 'A plague o' both your houses!', He realises that his death was caused by this hatred. Mercutio's death also foreshadows later devastating events and it is after his death that Romeo realises the consequences of his love affair.
The conflict between parent and child is visible throughout the play. In the Capulet household the focus is on discord primarily between Juliet and her parents. In Act 3, scene 5 Lord Capulet threatens to disown Juliet; he uses animalistic and threatening imagery: 'Graze...hang, beg, starve, die in the streets'. Lord Capulet also threatens physical violence to convey his anger: 'My fingers itch'. As a father, Lord Capulet has a right to choose a husband for Juliet. He chooses a gentleman of noble status yet Juliet is still ungrateful. In the Elizabethan era, women from an aristocratic family were expected to obey their father yet Juliet is opposing this.
Conflict is again demonstrated through the choice of words the characters use; when Lord Capulet is being pleasant he addresses Tybalt with 'thou'/'thee'/'thy' but when he is angry he uses the word 'you'. This can also be observed in Act 3, scene 5 when Lord Capulet is angry with Juliet: 'Out, you green-sickness carrion! Out, you baggage, You tallow-face'.
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There are occasions between Romeo and Juliet where there is conflict between the sacred and profane. In the play, Romeo represents the profane by '[taking Juliet's hand:]', whereas Juliet represents the sacred by declaring 'lips that they must use in prayer'. Here Juliet uses religious imagery of a pilgrim in response to Romeo's more profane thoughts however he does get his way with '[kissing]' her.
In Act 2, scene 2, the conflict between the sacred and profane is illustrated by the staging: '[Juliet appears aloft at the window]', symbolising that Juliet is nearer to the heavens as her thoughts are more sacred whereas Romeo is on the ground representing the more earthly and profane. Juliet expresses her feeling quite openly: 'Dost thou love me?' It would have been unusual for Elizabethan women to ask such forthright questions.
The conflict between families is introduced in the beginning of the play. The play begins with Samspon and Gregory looking for a fight: which then escalates into a brawl with Benvolio and Tybalt and finally includes Lord Capulet and Lord Montague. Here the structure is important as it shows the escalation of hierarchy fighting. Conflict between the families can be portrayed through the stage directions as each member of the families enter from different sides of the stage: '[Enter Benvolio on one side, Tybalt on the other]'. Lord Capulet's house is protected by the high orchard walls which separate each family thus displaying a form of conflict.
The use of language and inner conflict is used to represent conflict in many ways. Romeo uses battle terminology such as 'siege' and 'well armed' in his declaration of his love for Rosaline. He also uses oxymorons such as 'loving hate' to portray the conflict between the two families and his unrequited love from Rosaline. In Act 3, scene 5, Juliet is experiencing inner conflict as Romeo has to depart to Manutua; she seems desperate for Romeo to stay: 'Wilt thou be gone... It was the nightingale, and not the lark', yet the audience knows that it was the lark and therefore they are forced to part mirroring their inner conflict between them.
Inner conflict is apparent throughout the play. In Act 2, scene 2, Juliet expresses that Romeos' name is the enemy, reminding us of the 'ancient grudge'. This form of conflict affects todays' society where many people experience inner conflict because of their struggles or belief. This is reinforced later, In Act 2, scene 2, where Juliet goes in and out of her balcony three times which highlights that she is unsure where her loyalty lies - with her family, or Romeo, who is the enemy of the Capulet family but is her love. There is further evidence of inner conflict in Act 2, scene 2 as Romeo uses cosmological imagery: 'Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon' to convey his passion for Juliet.
The structure of the play forms a major part in the build-up of conflict. There are highlights of conflict in the beginning, middle and end. In the beginning there is the physical fighting and the threat conflict from the Prince and in the middle there is Mercutio's death. The film version directed by Baz Luhrmaan is portrayed by dark clouds and thunder and as an audience we realise that the play has now turned from a comedy into a tragedy. The ending of the play concludes with conflict again when Romeo kills Paris and the lovers take their lives; the film version reveals that Juliet is awakening just as Romeo drinks the poison portraying the genre of comedy and tragedy at the same time as she is unaware that he is dying.
The play consists of two conflicting genres - comedy and tragedy. To begin with the hero wants to marry Juliet. However, he is unable to achieve this due to the 'ancient grudge'. Romeo then sets out to triumph over the obstacles by attending the Capulet ball. The play then slowly steers into a tragedy as things begin to go wrong, firstly with Mercuito's death and then Tybalt's death. Things have begun to slip out of the hero's control as Romeo has become exiled and finally he is destroyed as he finds that his wife Juliet is 'dead'.
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There are different ways to interpret Romeo and Juliet; some may believe that Shakespeare is projecting that no one is immune to conflict and therefore we all have hatred in us. Conflict is inevitable as it is something every human experiences; human beings will always be in conflict with each other as we see things in terms of opposites: right and wrong, good and bad. However, others may believe that Shakespeare is expressing the need for reconciliation. The play effectively dramatises conflict for the Elizabethan audience as they were familiar with conflict around them. The play is relevant today as it highlights conflict in issues such as religion, family, politics and culture.