There is no specific individual who is entirely to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet; therefore it is necessary to distribute the blame amongst a number of the characters. The role of Fate in the play must also be considered, as Shakespeare’s repeated references to this force infer that it too played its part in forcing the two lovers to commit suicide. The way in which characters behave is influenced by the rigid conventions of Seventeenth Century society, contributing to the reasons why Romeo and Juliet felt it necessary to take their own lives. The history of the two families; the Montagues and the Capulets, affects the characters’ behaviour, as Romeo and Juliet found it impossible to be together in an ordinary way because of the ancient feud that divided them.
Romeo is introduced in Act One as a solitary individual who is acutely sensitive and susceptible to depression when disappointed in love. Whilst Romeo is besotted with Rosaline, Montague informs us that his son spends all day locked in his room. He describes his behaviour as ‘portentous’, which suggests he is dangerously melancholy and may be suicidal. This prepares the audience for Romeo’s reaction later in the play when he hears of Juliet’s ‘death’ and leads us to believe that his character could be his Fate.
Romeo is also shown to fall in and out of love very easily, as is evident when he first sets eyes on Juliet. He forgets Rosaline and praises Juliet comparing her to a ‘torch’ and a ‘rich jewel’. Had Romeo waited before pursuing Juliet and considered whether a Capulet bride was a plausible idea, his passionate feelings may have changed and the tragedy would never have occurred. Throughout the play Shakespeare represents romantic love as destructive and dangerous, linking it via patterns of imagery to fire and disease. In Act One Romeo speaks in oxymorons to convey how disillusioned and confused he is by love, ‘feather of lead, cold fire’.
‘My intents are savage wild’ exclaims Romeo before breaking into the Capulet’s vault in Act Five; here even Romeo himself admits that his actions are bordering on insanity. There is a dangerous intensity to all Romeo’s actions, as is evident in Act Three when, after his sentencing for the killing of Tybalt, we witness him once again in a suicidal state, foolishly envying ‘carrion flies’ because they can see Juliet and calling banishment ‘death’. When Friar Laurence tries to reason with him he retorts ‘hang up philosophy’, which reveals his blinkered attitude and lack of logic. Had he been able to look to a future in which he could have married someone else he might not have acted so violently and impetuously. Everyone is responsible for his or her own actions, which is why I believe Romeo is ultimately the author of his own fate but Juliet is also accountable for her death.
In Act Four Scene Three Juliet expresses numerous fears before swallowing the potion given to her by the Friar, including doubts about whether or not the potion is genuine and will work, ‘what if this mixture do not work at all?’ However, ultimately it is Juliet who drinks the potion, the Friar does not force it down her throat. Therefore she is responsible, had she not drunk it Romeo would not have committed suicide and neither would she. Shakespeare seems to suggest Fate again is behind the scenes by connecting Juliet with imagery of light, angels and saints throughout the play, prefiguring her premature death. ‘O speak again bright angel’ exclaims Romeo in Act Two, Scene Two as he watches from beneath her balcony. Juliet cannot be held totally accountable for her actions as she was very young and had no reliable advice. The only person she thought she could trust was her nurse, and even she betrayed her.
The Nurse’s own daughter Susan died as a child and Shakespeare implies that Juliet became her surrogate daughter. She is represented as being desperate to witness a wedding, ‘I might live to see thee married once I have my wish’. This line demonstrates how romantic and sentimental the nurse is and the fact that her own daughter died before she could be wed may have swayed her judgement when advising Juliet about Paris. The Nurse has positive attributes; her fondness and protectiveness of Juliet, however we must question whether it was wise for her to act as a mediator for Romeo and Juliet without informing Juliet’s parents. She is not an educated woman and would not have questioned her own actions as a more learned person might have, so we cannot hold her culpable for too much of the tragedy. Friar Laurence, however, is a well educated man and should have acted more wisely.
As a monk in Renaissance Italy the Friar would have been a highly respected man. He is a male in the patriarchal church governed society of Seventeenth Century Italy and for this reason the nurse would have deferred to him. His role must be considered carefully. He is introduced in Act Two as Romeo’s confidant and, unlike Montague, knows about Rosaline. As an older man and a man of God we would expect the Friar to give Romeo and Juliet good, sensible advice. This is not the case. In Act Two he resolves to marry the young lovers secretly. Considering Juliet’s tender age and the fact that the law states a girl’s father should choose her husband, this decision seems irresponsible. The young lovers could not have married without the Friar’s assistance, so ultimately we could blame him for the marriage and hence the tragedy. The Friar’s desire ‘to turn your two households’ rancour to pure love’ suggests that he is politically ambitious, wanting to attract status and praise by resolving the ancient feud. This is a selfish agenda and I feel he should have thought of the consequences before making the decision. However, the audience does feel some sympathy for him. The line ‘It strains past the compass of my wits’ proves how difficult the situation is for him. He may have been wrong to marry Romeo and Juliet, but he is not wrong to give Juliet the potion, as she may have killed herself anyway, ‘I long to die, if what you speak speaks not of remedy’. The Friar is just trying to offer her a way out of the situation and it is Juliet’s parents who force her to turn to him.
Juliet’s father Capulet can also be blamed for the tragedy. He forces Juliet to marry Paris despite saying in Act One ‘my will to her consent is but a part’ implying that she has a choice about who she should marry. This is ironic considering his later behaviour. In Act Three Scene Five Shakespeare effectively reinforces Capulet’s anger by his use of seven one syllable words ‘Day, night, hour, tide, time, work, play’. However his domineering behaviour seems more outrageous to a modern audience than it would have been to one in Shakespeare’s time when it was very common for dynastic marriages of convenience to be arranged by the oldest male in the family. Lady Capulet can also be held accountable though not as much as Juliet’s father. Early on in the play Shakespeare exaggerates the lack of warmth between mother and daughter when Lady Capulet asks the nurse to leave so she can talk to Juliet ‘in secret’. Then she immediately calls the nurse back again saying ‘nurse come back again I have remember’d me’ because she does not know what to say to her own daughter. She also seems ignorant of Juliet’s feelings about Paris and it can be argued that she lacks maternal sensitivity, but this would be fairly common in a noble family. ‘I would the fool were married to her grave’ is a harsh statement that reveals Lady Capulet’s brutal lack of sympathy.
This absence of a close parental bond affects Romeo too. It is significant that Montague has no idea what troubles his son. In Act One when asked if he knew why Romeo is so depressed, he replies ‘I neither know it nor can learn of him’. Had the bond been closer between father and son Romeo might have been able to discuss the Juliet situation and not resorted to desperate measures. Therefore we can blame Montague for not communicating efficiently with his son and hence for his part in the tragedy.
Society plays a significant part in the play, as the tremendous pressure to conform to its conventions affects how many characters in the play behave. In the Seventeenth Century it was normal for noble women to give their children to a wet nurse until about the age of two or three, and even after this age the nurse would have had much more contact with the child than its parents. In Act Two Shakespeare’s use of language demonstrates the difference between the relationships Juliet has with her mother and the nurse. The nurse uses many endearments such as ‘lamb’ and ‘lady bird’ to show her affectionate bond with Juliet. However when Juliet speaks to her mother she addresses her as ‘madam’ and continues to use a formal, respectful register throughout their talk. Later, her inability to confide in her mother, who had far more power to affect events than the servant class nurse, comes as no surprise. When Lord Capulet arranges Juliet’s marriage to Paris he is trying to give his family a better reputation. Paris’s wealth is a major factor making him very eligible as a husband for Juliet. The upper ranks of Seventeenth Century society were dependent on dynastic marriages in order that noble families could increase in prosperity.
Interestingly the play is not set in England and Shakespeare (who had probably never been to Italy) has exaggerated the hot-blooded, passionate reputation of the Italians. He presents the characters as easily provoked to self-harm; I think this is just his perception of how people saw suicide as the only way out of a difficult decision. The dictates of Italian Renaissance society meant that no physical relationship could occur outside marriage. Juliet’s reputation would have been destroyed had this happened so marriage was the only way the couple could be together. For this reason we can blame society for the tragedy as well as the characters themselves.
The minor characters are also partly to blame for the tragedy. Tybalt, in killing Mercutio, causes Romeo to be banished as he felt honour bound to kill Tybalt. Balthasar also has an effect on the events, as had he not galloped importunely to tell Romeo of Juliet’s supposed death Romeo would have heard from Friar John about what really happened and not taken such drastic action.
Shakespeare makes it clear that throughout the play, factors more powerful than characters are working in this drama, such as Fate. Many of Shakespeare’s Seventeenth Century audiences believed that fate controlled one’s destiny. Shakespeare in the Prologue establishes fate as a major cause of the tragedy when he describes the lovers as ‘star-crossed’. Coincidences stalk the play. Romeo, in particular has an awareness that fate is working against him ‘some consequences yet hanging in the stars’. When Balthasar brings news of the tragedy to Romeo Fate is working against him, as Friar Laurence’s messenger has to be held in quarantine due to plague, hence Romeo finds out the wrong news, resulting in his death. Romeo himself explains in Act Five Scene One ‘I defy you stars’ acknowledging that fate seems to be against him and that he plans to control his own destiny now. In the Seventeenth Century there was a great debate as to whether fate or one’s own character controlled events. Shakespeare concludes Romeo and Juliet by suggesting it is a mixture of the two and that perhaps character and fate cannot be separated.
After analysing the role of each character I still believe, as the Prince says, that ‘all are punished’. However, I also believe that everyone is responsible for their own actions, so most of all I blame Romeo and Juliet themselves.