Was the tragedy brought by an overwhelming fate, or did individuals bring it upon themselves?
Romeo and Juliet was written by William Shakespeare at a time when fate was believed to control everything, and the position of the stars at the moment of one’s birth foretold the path of someone’s life. In the play, and throughout, nearly all the characters blame fate for the misfortunes that lead to the eventual tragedy. I believe that a small amount of fate but also chance brings upon the deaths of both households, but also some of the characters contribute by the decisions they make, the feud they keep alight, and the quickness with which they act.
Fate is mentioned by the chorus at the start of the play:
‘A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life
Whose misadventure’d piteous overthrows’
Beginning with a reference to fate, then talking about the lover’s actions, suggests that fate has a higher priority in the cause of the tragedy, rather then the individuals’ actions. However, Shakespeare makes the characters acknowledge an overwhelming fate on stage. First we hear Romeo talking about it:
Romeo ‘Then I defy you stars’
Romeo believes in fate, and is constantly referring to it. He uses the word ‘deny’, which is a strong word that shows his determination. The friar also refers to fate on stage:
Friar Laurence ‘Oh! Unhappy Fortune’
However, Shakespeare only makes the characters who are weak, and unable to acknowledge their own decisions, blame fate. Romeo blames fate all the time throughout the play, rather than his own actions, which he causes. On the other hand, Juliet never blames fate, and identifies factors like haste and the family feud as the causes of the deaths in the families. A modern day audience may disagree and blame it entirely on the individuals- rather than a cruel overwhelming fate as Romeo sees it. Another factor is chance, which does play a very large part in the tragedy:
Benvolio ‘The day is hot, the capels are abroad’
Benvolio warns Mercutio about the heat of the day, when many people are easily irritated, but Mercutio ignores the advice, and is slain by Tybalt. The Capulet nephew is then killed by Romeo, and as a result Romeo is banished, which is the peripeteia, as the lovers are separated, which leads to the rushed plan, and eventually both the deaths. Another time chance plays a part in the tragedy is during a plague outbreak:
Friar John ‘Seal’d up the doors, and would not let us forth’
Friar John is held because of a plague in the area he is visiting, and so he cannot give the note to Romeo about the plan about him and Juliet.
It is not connected to fate, but the feud, an ‘ancient grudge’ that is the main contributor. At the beginning of the play, before the reference to fate or individual actions, the audience is told about the rivalry between the two households. It is also shown in the first scene, with both households fighting, showing how many people are involved. The feud affects members of the household and even innocent people who are not blood related (like Mercutio and Paris). At the end, Romeo, Juliet, Lady Montague, Tybalt, Mercutio and Paris all are dead as a result of the fighting between the houses. The Capulets take the feud more seriously:
Capulet ‘My sword I say’
The Capulet servants are the first ones to start the street feud, and Benvolio, a friend of the family, tries to keep the peace. Tybalt is shown as being evil in the 1997 movie version: during the Capulets fancy dress, he is dressed as the devil:
Tybalt ‘Turn thee, Benvolio, look upon thy death.’
The nephew of the Capulets, he often has a fiery attitude, and a very aggressive one. What is responsible for the feud and therefore the tragedy is individual characters’ actions. This explanation of the cause is the most likely, as the modern day audience would not blame fate. This is also reflected in the last speech, by the prince, who blames individuals rather than a cruel, overwhelming fate:
‘and I, for winking at your discords too have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished’
The prince accepts that he is partly to blame, although I would not name him as a major character that caused the tragedy. He uses the word ‘winking’, which gives the effect of him not caring what is going on in his kingdom.
Romeo, despite blaming fate does not realise that he himself is to blame, and it is he that also plays a part in the tragedy. Romeo’s own actions after the death of Mercutio, he blames on fate:
‘O I am fortune’s fool’
After Mercutio stands up for Romeo’s honour, Romeo tells both Mercutio and Tybalt to stop. They both ignore him, and so he tries to stop them physically. This causes Mercutio to lose concentration as Romeo gets in the way:
Mercutio: ‘I was hurt under your arm’
He is then stabbed by Tybalt and dies. Then, Romeo kills Tybalt, as an act of revenge and then blames fate about his misfortunes:
Romeo: ‘This day’s black fate on mo days doth depend’
Both times, however he is responsible and the deaths could have been averted. At other times, a flaw in Romeo is he often rushes into decisions without thinking of the consequences:
‘Therefore thy kinsmen are no stop to me’
When Romeo visits Juliet after the party, she tells him that if any of her family found him there, they would kill him. He responds by ignoring the warning and stays at Juliet’s balcony. He then tells Juliet that he will answer her proposal the next day, which also shows the haste of the play. Later, even the Friar warns him about his rushing ‘Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow’. Even then, Romeo rushes, which leads him to killing Tybalt in a rush, and being exiled. Even when he is banished and is warned by Balthasar to slow down, he immediately buys some quick acting poison and rushes to Juliet’s tomb. This makes Romeo a very important contributor to the tragedy.
Juliet is a sensible character with a deeper understanding of events that happen, for example she is aware of the haste when she marries Romeo:
‘It is too rash, too unadvis’d, too sudden,
Too like the lightning’
Despite asking Romeo to marry her a few hours after they meet, Juliet does say the decision is too rushed if Romeo decides then. She uses a simile, ‘like the lightning’ as one can only see lightning for a few seconds, and then it disappears. She then asks if his answer be yes or no by the next morning, which is impetuous. After Romeo is banished, her feelings make her ask Romeo to stay longer in her bed, despite the chance she might be caught which does show a very thoughtless side of Juliet. At the end of the play, she does not rush her death straight away when she wakes up. Although, I would not say she is a major contributor to the end tragedy.
Tybalt defiantly has a very prominent effect on the outcome, as he is always very violent and wanting a fight:
‘…and talk of peace? I hate the word
as I hate all Montagues’
The oxymoron of peace and hate shows how angry and evil he is. His violent attitude is illustrated at the party, when he sees Romeo. Although it is a misunderstanding, he is told not to disturb the party, but comes after Romeo because he thinks he is interrupting it. Nevertheless when he does not find Romeo, but Benvolio and Mercutio, he talks very politely:
‘Gentlemen, good e’en! A word with one of you’
Here we see a new, politer side to Tybalt, as he does not have any problems with Benvolio or Mercutio. In fact, it is Mercutio who starts the fight, which leads to their deaths. However, when Romeo comes, he returns to his vicious thoughts:
‘thou art a villain’
‘…Therefore turn and draw’
It is this behaviour that undoubtedly intensifies the tragedy. This is also reflected when the comedian of the play, Mercutio is killed. From this point on, the play takes a more tragic turn of events. As a result, I place Tybalt very high up for his actions because the real tragedy begins, after the peripeteia, the death of Mercutio.
Mercutio also has a wild attitude and as the audience sees, he was interfering with Tybalt, even though Tybalt was not even insulting him. He is warned about the humidity of the day by Benvolio, but ignores the words and fights Tybalt anyway. This leads to Mercutio’s death, and as a result, because of revenge Romeo kills Tybalt. However, if he had not died Romeo would not have killed Tybalt: his peace with his cousin in law might have stopped him from later being banished.
Lady Capulet is not the most important character, but she does still contribute in certain places throughout the play. When the death of Tybalt is heard of, she asks the Prince to execute Romeo:
‘Romeo slew Tybalt: Romeo must not live’
Whether she wants justice, or just revenge, she persuades the prince to come to a decision, which keeps the feud alive. Moreover, the audience is aware of the gap Juliet is apart from her mother; she often refers to her as ‘madam’ rather than ‘mother’. It is this because of this space that makes her mother not stick up for her daughter, when Juliet’s father loses his temper with her. Later, when Capulet asks her to marry Paris, and she refuses both the nurse and Lady Capulet offer no support to her, and as a result she has to find someone else to reply upon (the friar). So, she is still a guilty person for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, and I think she is quite a large contributor to the tragedy.
The Friar is an important character in the play, and both Romeo and Juliet come to him for advice. We see him to be a well-intentioned man, and tries to make peace between the families, although he does not consider all the outcomes, and so adds unintentionally to the feud. Most of his plans, like the wedding, he sees as an opportunity to end the feud:
‘For this alliance may so happy prove,
to turn your households’ rancour to pure love.’
He believes he is marrying them for good, but his plan fails. Later, also he is forced to help Juliet when she uses emotional blackmail on him, saying she will kill herself if he does not help her. Even this plan goes wrong when friar John is held back by plague outbreaks, although this is still not Friar Laurence’s fault. Although, we can perhaps blame him at the end when he flees from the tomb, afraid of being caught:
‘Come, go good Juliet. I dare no longer stay’
So, she was left alone. This is the only point when the friar is directly responsible for a death. Although, he could not really have done anything for her, as her Romeo has died, and she has shown earlier that she is willing to die for him. Juliet was in love with Romeo so much that not even he could not stop her from killing herself, so I see that the friar is not largely responsible.
The nurse is quite a major character for the tragedy. She helps arrange the secret marriage, and later doesn’t help Juliet when her father is angry with her. She turns sides in the middle of the play, despite helping the young lovers through everything:
‘I think it best you married with the county
O he’s a lovely gentlemen’
Thus, having being rejected by everyone, including the nurse, whom she has always relied upon. The nurse, may have been trying to think straight, or perhaps she was doing this for selfish reasons; now Juliet is growing up, she will soon lose her job. Juliet then visits the friar who comes up with the plan that eventually leads to her death. Consequently, the nurse is very high in the cause of the catastrophe.
Capulet contributes to the tragedy, as he rushes into the fight when it begins in the first scene:
Capulet: What noise is this? Give me my long-sword, ho!
At the beginning we see a very aggressive side to Capulet, who rushes straight in to the fight, not wanting to know who or what started it. On the other hand, in the next scene he shows a loving father figure by telling Paris to wait a few years, before he can marry Juliet:
Capulet: Let two more summers wither in their pride
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride
This is ironic, because a few days later he tells Paris he can marry Juliet, and even moves the wedding forward. Moreover, a few scenes later, he tells Tybalt not to disrupt his party (when Tybalt wants to fight Romeo for intruding). However, in act three, he plays a larger part in the tragedy by arranging the marriage with Paris, and because of Juliet’s refusal, and he consequently disowns her:
Capulet: I tell thee what, get thee to church o’ Thursday
Or never after look me in the face
Nurse: God in heaven bless her!
You are to blame, my lord, to rate her so
This is another large decision that adds to the tragedy. It leads Juliet to demand advice from the friar, who comes up with a desperate, rushed plan.
It was typical for a father in Shakespeare’s time to control their daughters, and to be angry if they disobeyed them. On the other hand, Shakespeare shows he is being too harsh on her, as both the nurse and his own wife asks him to calm down.
In conclusion I would blame the majority of the tragedy on the individuals I have described, especially Capulet, Tybalt and the Nurse, who I think were very large contributors to the tragedy. Even the ruler of Verona, the prince blames the individuals, rather than fate. Perhaps it just depends what time period ones from: Elizabethan England, where the stars control destinies, or the modern day where we control our own.