Discuss the role of parents and parent substitutes in Romeo and Juliet. How responsible are these adults for the tragedy?
I prefer to think of Romeo and Juliet as a love story with a tragic ending rather than a classic tragedy, because the love Romeo and Juliet find and share is beautiful and inspiring: there is nothing tragic about it.
Juliet My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep. The more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
[Act 2, Scene 2, 133-35]
Their heart-rending deaths are of course tragic, resulting as they do from an unforeseeable flaw in Friar Laurence’s well-intentioned but unlikely plan. Their lives, however, serve to prove that young love is viable, that young people know what they want and will go to extreme lengths to find it. The fair (ie beautiful) city of Verona is a city of promise, one where young love can flourish; it is also a city where swords are drawn in an instant and where life can perish on a sword-point. In such a situation, we cannot be surprised at the existence of a smouldering feud between two prominent families (the Capulets and the Montagues) nor should we be surprised if the young people do not always follow their parents’ wishes.
That Romeo, a Montague, and Juliet, a Capulet, should meet at all is a delightful stroke of luck or possibly fate. In a time of arranged marriages, a time when a disobedient daughter might be disowned by her angry father, the fact that Juliet falls in love with Romeo under her father’s roof creates an exciting atmosphere of romance and danger. Ironically, it is Juliet’s father who speaks well, and with some knowledge, of Romeo.
Capulet He bears him like a portly gentleman.
And, to say truth, Verona brags of him
To be a virtuous and well-governed youth.
[Act 1, Scene 5, 62-64]
Shortly before this time, Romeo’s own father had expressed his concern over his son’s persistent melancholy, which we can dismiss as one-sided infatuation (over Rosaline).
If the respective heads of the feuding houses come across initially as concerned fathers, this impression fades. Romeo is closer to Friar Laurence, in whom he is able to confide than his own father.
Romeo Hence will I to my ghostly father’s cell,
His help to crave and my dear hap to tell.
[Act 2, Scene 2, 188-9]
Juliet answers to her father, treats her mother with respect but looks to her nurse for motherly advice and attention. It is fair to say that the Friar and the Nurse fulfil roles as surrogate parents, more out of situational proximity than choice. The Nurse carries out the necessary role of go-between in the early stages of the relationship and the Friar marries them. In the crisis caused by Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment, the Nurse fails Juliet completely by taking the easy way out.
Nurse I think it best you married with the County.
O, he’s a lovely gentleman!
Romeo’s a dishclout to him.
[Act 3, Scene 5, 218-220]
The Friar is better intentioned than the Nurse but his plans still go astray because of ill chance or fate.
Fr Laurence Romeo! O, pale! Who else? What, Paris too?
And steeped in blood? Ah, what an unkind hour
Is guilty of this lamentable chance!
[Act 5, Scene 3, 144-46]
It is significant that the two young people rely on people outside of their own families. In seeking love they must avoid the hatred that has become enshrined in their families’ feuding.
Where Romeo’s parents are concerned but indulgent, Juliet’s parents are domineering and dictatorial. Over the business of her refusal to marry Paris, Juliet’s mother withdraws, thus leaving her husband to overrule Juliet and implement his will.
Capulet But fettle your joints ‘gainst Thursday next
To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,
Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.
[Act 3, Scene 5, 153-155]
This illustrates how little the Capulet parents really know about their daughter, who has been brought up almost exclusively by her nurse. It points to a distinct absence of compassion on their part, as we see – particularly from the father – in his insistence that she marry Paris or leave home with nothing and take her chances on the streets. There is nothing of the unconditional love parents supposedly have for their children evident in her father. His unreasonableness fuels Juliet’s determination to defy him, driven to desperation as she is by her secret marriage (to Romeo) and his exile to Mantua over the killing of Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin.
Romeo too grows desperate, kept apart from his young and unacknowledged wife, about whom his very world revolves and from whom he is effectively estranged by royal decree. Having sought the help of Friar Laurence, he is in his hands, and has to wait for news of Juliet and when they will be together. He cannot begin to suspect, let alone know, that fate will intervene cruelly to block Friar John – who is on his way to Romeo with news of Friar Laurence’s plans – and that Balthasar – who has witnessed Juliet’s funeral – will reach him first.
As an audience we are fully appreciative of the frustration Romeo and Juliet must feel. Their love is all-encompassing, and that it is strong enough to sustain their hopes for a future together is almost miraculous. However, their fate is in the hands of others, all adults. They themselves are virtually powerless to change circumstances to their advantage; so, when Romeo acts impulsively on misinformation
Romeo Is it e’en so? Then I defy you, stars!
[Act 5, Scene 1, l 24]
we wish him the best but fear the worst. In an inflexible world ruled by adults, the chances of teenagers succeeding against the odds are slim.
We cannot lay the blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet exclusively at the doors of their parents, real or surrogate. It is as the Prince gravely states – all are punished. The feuding families have to bear the guilt equally for their lingering enmity. A tale of young love, with all its promise, has become a catalogue of death. In the end the city has lost five young citizens, cut down before their time. Society is the poorer for the losses. Those who survive share the blame for what has happened, since the whole city has had a hand, directly or indirectly, in the deaths. All are indeed punished.