'Romeo and Juliet' - an Aristotelian Tragedy of Youth and Love Essay

According to Aristotle (335BC), an essential element in the ‘good or fine’ character of every great tragic hero is ‘hamartia’, the fatal flaw. The tragic hero’s fatal flaws inevitably lead to negative consequences in his life. The character of Romeo, the tragic hero[1] of William Shakespeare’s cautionary tragedy Romeo and Juliet, contains three key fatal flaws that condemn him and others to death.

Through employing the dramatic techniques of meaningful dialogue, soliloquy, narrative structure, and characterisation, Shakespeare privileges that Romeo’s flaws of irresponsibility, rashness and waywardness were stereotypical of upper-class youth[2] during the Renaissance[3]. Romeo’s fatal flaw of irresponsibility is foregrounded throughout the play as he repeatedly relies on fate. By obliviously relying on chance when he is ‘in love’ and then blaming fate when he meets conflict, Romeo shirks off responsibility for his own actions and decisions (Shakespeare, 1597, I. i. 160).

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By gate-crashing Capulet’s banquet, where ‘’tis no wit to go’ as a Montague, he recklessly lends himself to chance (I. iv. 50). Indirectly, this risk taken by Romeo is the cause of Tybalt’s and Mercutio’s death. After irrationally mourning for Mercutio and murdering Tybalt, Romeo then dubs himself ‘fortune’s fool’ (III. i. 132), blaming ‘[t]his day’s black fate’ (III. i. 114) for his predicament. Through this event, Shakespeare conveys a cautionary warning to the audience by inviting that Romeo’s irresponsibility in love results in the downfall of Romeo, Mercutio and Tybalt.

When in love, Romeo also possesses the character of rashness. It is a common element in tragedies for the tragic hero to hastily disregard repeated forebodings and warnings of doom, and that this would contribute to his eventual downfall in the play (Aristotle, 335BC). In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo receives countless premonitions and omens from ‘the stars’ hanging above foreshadowing the lovers’ approaching doom (I. iv. 113). Yet, the hero does not appear to take these to heart when in the face of love.

Just before attending Capulet’s banquet, Romeo reflects, ‘I fear…/ Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars…/ With this night’s revels’ (I. iv. 112-115). Nonetheless, he immediately decides, ‘Let come what may, once more I will behold/ My Juliet’s eyes!… / In our hearts dwell love and endless peace’ (i. iv. 121). It is almost as if Romeo’s rational judgement is ‘hoodwinked’ by Cupid’s bow (I. iv. 4). In Act Three, both Romeo and Juliet perceive the other as ‘one dead in the bottom of a tomb’ (III. v. 56) and ‘pale’ (III. v. 57).

Romeo even further comments, ‘Dry sorrow drinks our blood’ (III. v. 59). Shakespeare couples this dialogue with Romeo’s premonition in Mantua – ‘I dreamt that my lady came and found me dead’– to convey an obvious sense of foreshadowing and foreboding doom to the audience, as it was a commonly thought in the Renaissance that dreams actually came true (V. i. 5). Nonetheless, Romeo obliviously pursues his deepening relationship with Juliet. For the rest of the play, he gives no contemplation to the ‘ill-divining’ warnings (III. v. 54). Indeed, the ‘misadventured piteous overthrows’ (I. Prologue. ) of the lovers and those around them did come true in the end, even when Romeo attempts to ‘defy you, stars’ (V. i. 25). Shakespeare almost forces the audience to believe that Romeo’s obliviousness to the omens he encounters along the ‘fearful passage of their death-marked love’ may have caused their death (I. Prologue. 9). Through this privileged belief, Shakespeare cautions the audience about the flaw of rashness. Another way through which Shakespeare depicts Romeo as impulsive and rash is manipulating the play’s narrative structure, particularly plot development and the outcomes of Romeo’s impetuous decisions.

Shakespeare’s primary source when writing Romeo and Juliet was Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem, Romeus and Juliet. Instead of consolidating his relationship with Juliet for three months like Romeus does, Romeo is betrothed to his lover within twenty-four hours of their first encounter. Shakespeare’s adaptation heavily accentuates Romeo’s recklessness by suggesting that his decisions are excessively quick and ill-considered. The foreshadowing of Romeo’s eventual downfall occurs when Romeo confers with Friar Laurence about marrying Juliet ‘on sudden haste’ (II. iii. 96).

In reply, the friar cautions, ‘Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast’ (II. iii. 97). This proverb, verbalised by a strong symbol of wisdom and nobility, is possibly the most central moral lesson in Shakespeare’s didactic play. This privileged belief of care and wisdom in one’s every actions is also foregrounded later when Romeo irrationally murders Tybalt with ‘valour’s steel…[and] fire-eyed fury’ (III. i. 110-119), as well as when he immediately rushes to the apothecary for a ‘dram of poison’ (V. i. 63) to commit suicide upon hearing news of Juliet’s ‘death’.

In both situations, Romeo’s decisions and actions are consumed with his passionate, ‘brawling love’ (I. i. 168) for Juliet that ultimately reduces him to a ‘desperate man’ (V. iii. 59) and a ‘weary’ ‘life…taker’ (V. i. 65). Because both situations result in terrible downfall, Shakespeare cautions that recklessness in love is a fatal flaw in one’s character, just as Levenson (1987) wrote, ‘Youth repeatedly expires in its own ardency like a flash of lightning, while mature society endures – for better or for worse – to perform the funeral rites. ’ Throughout the play, Shakespeare repeatedly foregrounds Romeo’s waywardness in love.

His love ‘groaned for…tender Juliet’ (II. Prologue. 3-4), exemplified by his thoughts, ‘Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight. / For I never saw true beauty till this night’ (I. v. 51-52), fully exposes the protagonist’s waywardness. Even when Romeo learns that Juliet is a Capulet – ‘Is she a Capulet? / O dear account. My life is my foe’s debt’ (I. v. 123-124) – he immediately resolves to rebel against hardened interfamilial distinctions with a ‘passion [that] lends them power, time means, to meet,/ Tempering extremities with extreme sweet’ (II.

Prologue. 13-14). Just as Mercutio calls him, Romeo descends into madness; ‘Romeo! Humours! Madman! Passion! Lover!… / He heareth not, he stirreth not, he moveth not’ (II. i. 9-17). Mercutio likens him to an ‘ape’ (II. i. 18), dead from the spirits of love that must be ‘conjured’ (II. i. 28) out of him in order ‘to raise up him’ (II. i. 31) back to normal. Shakespeare positions the audience to perceive Romeo as ‘blind’ (II. i. 34) and lost or ‘not to be found’ (II. i. 45) in his love.

The erratic nature of his love is also foregrounded in Romeo’s soliloquy where he cries, ‘Ha, banishment? Be merciful, say “death”’ (III. iii. 13). Shakespeare invites that Romeo prefers ‘some vile forfeit of untimely death’ (I. iv. 117), ‘[f]or exile hath more terror in his look’ (III. iii. 14), forcing the audience to believe that Romeo’s wayward, day-old relationship with Juliet has already transformed him into an irrational, raving, ‘unthankful’, ‘deadly…rude…mad man’ (III. iii. 25-53). This aspect of irrationality in his nature is further oregrounded by his rants in third-person speech, where he refers to himself as ‘Romeo’ (III. iii. 34-41). It is almost as if, in his rage, he has detached his mind from his physical body. As the play progresses, the audience notices that Romeo increasingly prioritises ‘my Juliet’ (V. i. 15) far above his own ‘despised life’ (I. iv. 116). Shakespeare cautions the audience that the flaw of waywardness caused by love has fatally plagued Romeo: ‘Thus with a kiss I die’ (V. iii. 121). ‘In tragic life, God wot, No villain need be! Passions spin the plot:

We are betrayed by what is false within. ’ (George Meredith, 1862) Romeo and Juliet, the ‘epitome of youth’, are betrayed only by Romeo’s false and fatal flaws of irresponsibility, rashness and waywardness when in love (Ashcroft, 1982, p. 25). Shakespeare masterfully instructs the audience on the flaws of upper-class youth in love through setting an example of Romeo and Juliet’s ‘death-marked love’ (Shakespeare, 1597, I. Prologue. 9). Shakespeare concludes with, ‘For never was a story of more woe/ Than this of Juliet and her Romeo’ (V. iii. 316-317).

Shakespeare’s masterpiece certainly is a cautionary Aristotelian tragedy of youth and love. (901 words) Appendix A: Who is the tragic hero of the play? Although both Romeo and Juliet are ‘eligible’ to be the tragic hero of Romeo and Juliet due to their ‘rich and noble status’ and altruistic characters, it is Romeo who plays this role. (Aristotle, 335BC) Shakespeare constructs him as a flawed character throughout the play, presumably because he is constantly in love, while the virtuosity of ‘true and faithful Juliet’ is only tainted by Romeo’s negative influence. (V. iii. 09) Shakespeare positions the audience to compare Juliet’s personality before and after meeting Romeo in order to highlight his effect on her. Prior to Capulet’s banquet, she displays her subservience, not waywardness, in asking Lady Capulet, ‘…what is your will? ’ (I. iii. 7) and saying, ‘Your consent gives me strength to make me fly’ (I. iii. 102). On the other hand, when she is alone with Romeo in the orchard after the banquet, her waywardness surfaces immediately, presumably the consequence of loving Romeo: ‘Deny thy father and refuse thy name/ …be but sworn my love/ And I’ll no longer be a Capulet. (II. ii. 36-38) In the Renaissance, one would hold great pride in bestowing a noble family name. By ‘refusing’ their valuable social standings which are ‘both alike in dignity’ for the pure reason of love, Juliet displays the irresponsibility, rashness and waywardness of her newly-flawed character. (I. Prologue. 1) In the end, the audience is positioned to believe that it is Romeo’s influence of recklessness that causes Juliet to ‘drink to thee’ (IV. iii. 59) the ‘distilling liquor’ (IV. i. 5) against her better initial judgement, an act which ultimately seals the lovers’ doom. Thus, when the ‘pair of star-crossed lovers take their life’, the blame lies entirely on Romeo. (I. Prologue. 6) Appendix B: Who does Romeo represent? Shakespeare suggests that Romeo is representative only of upper-class Renaissance youth. Because of his specific construction as an heir to the ‘dignified’ and wealthy Lord Montague, only adolescents in a similar position of high noble status, not the general middle- or lower-class youth, are represented by Romeo.

Shakespeare foregrounds the wealth of the ‘house of Montagues’ (I. ii. 83-84) when Lord Montague offers Lord Capulet a ‘statue in pure gold’ (V. iii. 306) for Capulet’s ‘daughter’s jointure’ (V. iii. 303). From displays of Lord Capulet’s wealth, such as his large mansion, copious staff of servants and maids, frequent elaborate banquets, and his commodious tomb, Shakespeare positions the audience to assume that Lord Montague holds similar riches because the Chorus states in the beginning that the ‘[t]wo households [are] both alike in dignity’. I. Prologue. 1) Thus, due to his high social position bequeathed to him by Lord Montague, Romeo is only representative of upper-class youth. ———————– [1] Please see Appendix A for more analysis on the tragic hero of Romeo and Juliet. [2] Please see Appendix B for more analysis on Shakespeare’s representations of youth through Romeo. [3] Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in 1597, during the Renaissance Period (14th to 15th Century).


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