The purpose of this post is to take a close look at the reasons why we may consider William Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy.
To perform the above task effectively, I shall attempt a step by step answer to the following questions:
- What makes a play a tragedy?
- Is Romeo and Juliet a tragedy?
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A piece of drama is considered a tragedy when certain elements are present in it. We may conveniently term these as tragic elements.
We shall discuss seven major attributes of tragedy and at the same time find out whether this play contains any of these.
This is what will enable us to say we are right (or wrong) to consider Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy.
Tragic Hero/Heroine of High Birth
In every tragedy, there is always a principal character who occupies much of our attention.
This character is the tragic hero or heroine depending on whether the character is a male or female.
The tragic here is usually a person from the higher class of society. He may be a royal (king, prince, etc.) or a noble.
The style of language spoken by the tragic hero is often very poetic and lofty. His language portrays his high social standing as well as his usually melancholic mood.
In Romeo and Juliet, we have a tragic hero and heroine namely, Romeo and Juliet.
They are both from noble families. More often than not their style of speaking is poetic. They use metaphor, repetition, personification and other figures of speech. This is unlike the manner of speaking found with low-class citizens such as the servants. The tragic hero and the tragic heroine’s speeches are poetic also because they speak out of passion and sorrow.
Consider the following speech by Romeo just before he draws his dagger in an attempt to kill himself when the Nurse brings him news at Friar Lawrence’s cell concerning Juliet’s reaction to Tybalt’s death.
As if that name
Short from the deadly level of a gun
Did murder her as that name’s cursed hand
Murdered her Kinsmen. O tell me, Friar, tell me,
In what vile part of this a anatomy
Doth my name ledge? Tell me, that I may sack
The hateful mansion
(Act 3. Scene 3 one 102ff)
In this extract, using such poetic devices as metaphor, personification, repetition Romeo creates vivid images of war, murder, evil and destruction.
He compares his name to a bullet from a gun, and his body (anatomy) to a gun or better still and ammunition warehouse (mansion) which must be attacked and destroyed (sack) for causing harm (murder) to Juliet – by killing her beloved cousin, Tybalt.
Romeo’s sorrowful and regretful mood / tone is clearly brought out through this poetic speech with its repetitive “Tell me. Tell me”.
Another important element of tragedy is tragic flaw (know in classical Greek drama as Harmatia).
The tragic flaw refers to a weakness in the character of the tragic hero. This weakness leads him to take a tragic action (Hubris) which leads to his downfall.
Going by this definition, is there enough ground to consider Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy?
Let’s find out.
Romeo’s tragic flaw, we may say, is his inability to control his emotions.
As a result, he cannot restrain himself from fighting Tybalt who has just killed Mercutio.
Romeo makes a terrible mistake when he thinks and believes that Tybalt’s action has caused a stain on his honour and that, that stain can only be removed by avenging the death of Mercutio.
His killing of Tybalt is thus a tragic act because this is what leads to his banishment from Verona and thereby creating a fertile ground for the disaster which follows.
Reversal in Fortunes
There is a reversal when the tragic hero’s action brings about a sudden negative turn in his fortunes.
He may lose his position and throne as a king or suffer humiliation as a noble, among others.
Is there any evidence in this regard for us to describe Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy?
Yes, I think so.
Romeo, for example, is punished with banishment for taking the law into his own hands and for murder. Until this time, he has been a highly respected young man.
But by this action, his reputation has sunk among the citizenry. Romeo’s reversal starts from here up to the time he kills himself and loses Juliet.
Purgation of Emotions (Catharsis)
This is a process in which the audience (reader) sympathizes with the hero because of his misfortunes.
This feeling of pity and fear for the hero reaches a level where the audience acknowledges that such a misfortune could have easily happened to any one of them.
Members of the audience may express their emotions by openly shedding tears, sighing or make facial expressions of shock, surprise and frustration.
This goes on till the sad end of the play when the audience leaves the theatre, fully relieved of their emotions.
Can we consider Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy under this criterion too?
Absolutely. This is evidenced once more by the following.
In Romeo and Juliet, the misfortunes and sufferings of the hero and the heroine make us pity them.
We are held in painful suspense as the climax builds up to the point where Romeo, ignorant of the fact that Juliet is not truly dead, kills himself only to be followed by Juliet’s regaining consciousness and her pitiful end.
It is this dramatic irony that we see unfold in the play Romeo and Juliet that always makes the audience in a tragic play frustrated and downhearted.
Conflict is a crucial requirement in any piece of literature; more particularly tragedy. Conflict could be explained thus:
MC + G + O = C
MC – Motivated character
G – Goal
O – Obstacle
C – Conflict
The motivated character is usually the tragic hero.
This person desires (is motivated) to do something – to achieve a certain goal.
However, problems (obstacles) are put in his way either by other characters or by circumstances beyond his control.
The tragic hero will however not allow the obstacle to stop him achieving his goal. He therefore comes into direct confrontation (conflict) with this obstacle.
It is this confrontation (conflict) which moves the action (plot) of the whole drama until a point of decision is reached (climax).
And this is what brings about a great tragedy usually followed by a resolution or reconciliation – dénouement.
So the question is, can we qualify Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy here too?
Consider what comes next.
In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is a motivated character. His goal, to love and stay married to Juliet.
The obstacle in his way is the enmity between their two families.
Conflict arises as Romeo tries to overcome this enmity by refusing to fight Tybalt, a cousin of Juliet’s.
Romeo’s intention is to build bridges of love on which he can walk into the home of Capulet as a welcome son-in-law.
Unfortunately, Romeo’s decision not to fight Tybalt still produces undesirable results. It makes Mercutio fight Tybalt.
The death of Mercutio, as we see in the plot summary of the play, triggers off a series of actions and reactions which eventually causes the tragic deaths of the lovers and then the subsequent reconciliation.
The Role of Supernatural Forces
Very often, tragedy, at one point or the other, seems to suggest that the actions and misfortunes of the tragic hero are being driven by some external, supernatural powers.
In other words, whatever the hero does, as well as the results of any such action, are said to be the work of fate, destiny or any conceivable supernatural forces.
The belief or suspicion that the tragic hero is simply a plaything in the hands of certain powers outside his control adds a greater element of tragedy to the play.
It is this suspicion which make the audience sympathize the more with the tragic hero.
This, clearly, is another reason to describe Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy.
In Romeo and Juliet, the suspicion or belief that an external supernatural power is controlling and directing the actions and experiences of the protagonists is ever present.
The constant use of the word, “Fortune” by some characters gives ample evidence to this.
The characters are constantly alive to the fact that the goddess of FORTUNE has been playing a significant role in their experiences.
For instance, after the banished Romeo bid Juliet farewell, Juliet calls on Fortune to hasten and change Romeo’s fate for the better and bring him back to her:
O fortune, all men call thee frickle
If thou art frickle, what does thou with him
That is renowned for faith? Be frickle, fortune,
For then I hope thou will not keep him long
But send him back.
(Act 3, Scene 5, Line 59ff)
In addition, there is an ever-present atmosphere of foreboding and doom evoked by the dreams and fears experienced by the characters.
The lovers are “star crossed” (their destiny is laid down by their stars).
As Romeo attends the Capulets’ feast, he senses “some consequence yet hanging in the stars” which will bring about his early death.
In the same vein, Juliet says she has an “ill divining soul” which foresees evil.
Finally, at the vault, Friar Lawrence, while trying to persuade Juliet to come away from the tomb with him, expresses a strong belief that it is only a supernatural force which could have rendered his plan unsuccessful:
I hear some noise, lady. Come from that nest
Of death, contagion, and unnatural sleep.
A greater power than we can contradict
Hath thwarted our intents. Come. Come away
(Act 5, Scene 3, Line 151)
Thus, it is this awareness of the presence of the manipulative hands of a supernatural power which increases our fear for the lovers’ safety and heightens our feeling of pity for them.
But above everything else, each person in this drama, enjoys a considerable amount of free –will to do what they do.
They must, as a matter of course, bear greater responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
Title of the Play
More often than not, the title is derived from the name(s) of the tragic character(s). Tragedies like Oedipus Tyrannus, King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth and others have their tragic heroes’ names given as their titles.
In the same way, Romeo and Juliet bears the names of the two tragic characters.
Going by the above findings in the play, we can safely conclude that truly, there is enough evidence to regard Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy.
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