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William Shakespeare, a world-renowned playwright, poet, and actor, has been known for centuries all around the world for his great variety of brilliant, poetic, and creative plays written during the Elizabethan Era. Shakespeare’s plays have the reputation of being among the greatest in the English language and Western literature, traditionally divided into the genres of tragedy, history, and comedy, and comprising of various imaginative settings, plots, characters, and conflicts. They have been translated into every major living language, in addition to being continually performed all around the world. Many of Shakespeare’s plays give insight on human nature, astonishingly able to characterize every emotion, strength, and weakness possessed by human beings during the Elizabethan Era and even today. The most famous and critically acclaimed of Shakespeare's plays has to be Romeo and Juliet, a romantic tragedy concerning the fate of two young "star-crossed lovers" (Prologue, l. 6). The play focuses on romantic love, specifically the intense passion that springs up at first sight between Romeo and Juliet and the deaths of the two characters because of their eternal love for each other. While there could be various reasons for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, it is obvious that both the two households and significantly Old Capulet play the greatest roles in the tragedy due to their ancient family feud and Capulet’s overwhelming authority over his daughter, Juliet.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare creates a world of violence and generational conflict in which two young lovers fall in love and die because of that love. The story is rather extraordinary in that the normal problems faced by young lovers are here so very large. It is not simply that the families of Romeo and Juliet disapprove of the lovers’ affection for each other; rather, the Montagues and the Capulets are on opposite sides in a blood feud and are trying to kill each other on the streets of Verona. Every time a member of one of the two families dies in a fight, his relatives demand the blood of his killer. Because of the feud, if Romeo is discovered with Juliet by her family, he will be killed, as indicated during the balcony scene where Juliet says “If they do see thee, they will murder thee” (Act II, ii, l. 75). We are never told what the families are fighting about or fighting for; in this sense the feud is both causeless and goal-less. The long-standing hatred between the two families erupts into new violence and the two unlucky children of these enemy families become lovers and die due to their parents’ anger. The feud of the two families is illustrated in the Chorus’ first words:
Two households, both alike in dignity / (In fair Verona, where we lay our scene), / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. / From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life; / Whose misadventured piteous overthrows / Doth their death bury their parent’s strife. / The fearful passage of their death-marked love / And the continuance of their parent’s rage, / Which their children’s end, naught could remove … (Prologue, l. 1-11).
The hostility between their families, coupled with the emphasis placed on loyalty and honor to kin, combine to create an intense conflict for Romeo and Juliet, who must rebel against their families. If this feud had not existed in the first place, there would be no cause for Romeo and Juliet to hide their love for each other from their families. They wouldn’t have needed to have a secret wedding, Romeo wouldn’t have killed Tybalt and gotten exiled, Capulet wouldn’t have forced Juliet to marry Paris, and all the conflicts and plot advancements in the play wouldn’t have existed. Most importantly, if the feud had not existed in the first place, Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t have died. Romeo and Juliet’s deaths can be seen as the ultimate privacy where they could love each other and be together in the afterlife, without worrying about the thoughts and objections of their families. All the other conflicts and problems faced by the couple in the play are deeply rooted and weaved into the feud itself and therefore, wouldn’t have occurred if the feud had not existed.
Furthermore, in the Elizabethan Era, traditional culture distinguished sharply between the nature of identity for men and women. A woman’s identity was conceived almost exclusively in relation to male authority and martial status. A woman was a daughter, wife, or widow expected to be chaste, silent, and above all, obedient. The patriarchal power structure inherent in Renaissance families, in which the father controls the action of all other family members, particularly women, places Juliet in an extremely vulnerable position. Her heart, in her family’s mind, is not hers to give. The authority of the father over the daughter during the Elizabethan Era can clearly be understood when the audience is introduced to Old Capulet, the patriarch of the Capulet family, father of Juliet, husband of Lady Capulet, and enemy, for unexplained reasons, of Montague. Though Old Capulet truly loves his daughter, he is not well acquainted with Juliet’s thoughts or feelings, and seems to think that what is best for her is a “good” match with Paris. He commands respect and propriety, but he is liable to fly into a rage when either is lacking. In the play, Old Capulet demands Juliet to marry Paris. When Juliet refuses, her father becomes enraged and vows to put her out on the streets if she does not accept Paris as her husband saying “you will not wed, I’ll pardon you! / Graze where you will, you shall not house with me” (Act III, v, l. 199-200). To escape her planned wedding with Paris and to be with Romeo, she takes Friar Lawrence’s potion which sets off a series of events that lead to the couple’s eventual death. First, Romeo receives news of Juliet and kills himself to be with her. Then, Juliet wakes up and finds Romeo dead and commits suicide as well. If Old Capulet hadn’t threatened Juliet to marry Paris, then she wouldn’t have taken the potion and the couple wouldn’t have died at the end of the play. Because of his overwhelming authority over Juliet, she had no choice but to take the potion. Indeed, Juliet feels strong that she defies her father, but in that action she learns the limit of her power. Strong as she might be, Juliet is still a woman in a male-dominated world. One might think that Juliet should just take her father up on his offer to disown her and go to live with Romeo in Mantua. That is not an option. Juliet, as a woman, cannot leave society; and her father has the right to make her do as he wishes. Though defeated by her father, Juliet does not revert to being a little girl. She recognizes the limits of her power and, if another way cannot be found, determines to use it: for a woman in Verona who cannot control the direction of her life, suicide, the brute ability to live or not live that life, can represent the only means of asserting authority over the self.
Romeo and Juliet’s deaths are mostly due to the feud between the Capulets and Montagues and the power of Old Capulet over Juliet. Because of the feud, Romeo and Juliet had to hide their love and marriage from their families, which eventually led to their deaths at the end of the play in order to finally be together freely and without restraint. Because of Old Capulet’s authority over Juliet, she had no other choice other than to take the potion in order to be with Romeo. The taking of the potion itself, led to various proceedings which eventually led to the couple’s tragic deaths. It seems that society, love, violence and authority play the greatest roles in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. When you think of death, you usually think gloomy and depressing. Shakespeare is able to create an incredible play where death is seen as a symbol of love and freedom, where Romeo and Juliet die for their love and to escape the expectations and restrictions of their families. The beautiful but tragic story of Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most celebrated works that will be forever known around the world as one of the best love stories of all time!
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.
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"The Tragedy Of Romeo And Juliet: Who Is To Blame For Their Deaths?." 123HelpMe.com. 31 Jan 2015