‘Discuss the role of parents and parent substitutes in Romeo and Juliet. How responsible are these adults in the tragedy?’
Through Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare presented society a drama that touched on many aspects concerning human condition. The drama, when studied closely, deals with many universal truths including young love, the family unit, the role of fate and destiny, isolation and the effect of society on every individual. For one to judge how responsible the role of parents and parent substitutes in this tragedy, other important characters and issues must also be taken into consideration.Order now
Shakespeare established Romeo and Juliet’s love as the main focus in this tragic drama. Two young lovers, Romeo and Juliet, cannot understand the hatred of the older generation that keeps them apart, and choose to end their lives themselves rather than live without each other. The couple fall in love with each other at first sight, and not even the deaths of their relatives and friends put an end to the deep affections they have for each other.
Through the drama, Shakespeare expressed sympathy to young lovers. Romeo and Juliet are the innocent victims of greed, macho behaviour, pride and prejudice of their parents and of society as a whole. Shakespeare wants society to be more tender when treating young lovers, to listen and to understand their points of view – even if it means forgetting about one’s pride or an ancient family feud:
“Deny thy father and refuse thy name…And I’ll no longer be a Capulet”.
It is this point that the Capulet’s family, the Montague’s family or the Friar failed to do, and as a result of this Romeo and Juliet’s love became their downfall.
The Montague family appears early in the play. Although Lord Montague is as keen to fight as is his counterpart, Lord Capulet, there is also a seeming gentleness and caring about the parents. This is what Lady Montague has to say directly after the fight: ‘O where is Romeo? Saw you him today? / Right gald I am he was not at this fray’ (Act 1, scene 1), a remark that shows her care for her son. In addition, they are both concerned about the welfare of their son, instructing Benvolio to help if possible.
They then largely move out of the immediate action (with the exception of Act 3, scene 1 in which they plead for the life of their son), until the end when we hear of the loss of Lady Montague, having died of a broken heart. Lord Montague is generous at the end, as he promises to erect a statue in ‘pure gold’ to Juliet – an offer immediately countered by Lord Capulet: ‘As rich shall Romeo’s by his Lady lie …’ (Act 5, scene 3).
In contrast to the Montagues, Shakespeare chooses to give more attention to the Capulets as parents. This is obviously a necessity in terms of the plot for Juliet must be threatened with disinheritance and expulsion from the family. However, it also highlights the process of maturation that Juliet must undergo in the course of a very short time, resulting in her setting aside the family in favour of her husband, Romeo.
When we meet Lady Capulet early on in the play, she appears to be a caring mother, intent on seeing her daughter securely and (hopefully) happily married to the Count Paris: ‘Tell me, daughter Juliet, / How stands your disposition to be married?’ (Act 1, scene 3, lines 64-5). It would seem she herself was married at a young age, and became a mother very soon after. This has led to a somewhat jaded outlook on love and marriage, which she sees as something of a necessity in life. She is, however, not opposed to putting her own daughter in a very similar position, should Juliet agree to the arranged marriage to Paris: ‘Speak briefly, can you like of Paris’ love?’. Juliet’s reply reflects the innocence of the character at this moment in the play: ‘I’ll look to like, if looking liking move’ (Act 1, scene 3, lines 97-9).
As the play continues, we are increasingly confronted by a hard and inflexible woman. Her plea for the death of Romeo is vehement and impassioned: ‘Romeo must not live’ and ‘…shed blood of Montague…’ Her subsequent withdrawal from her daughter, in spite of Juliet’s heartfelt plea to her mother for help (‘O sweet my mother cast me not away!’) shows her determination to see the wedding take place, with no regard for the feelings of her only daughter.
Another character seemingly involved in neglecting Juliet is the Nurse. She is a foster-mother to Juliet, having been her companion since the time of her birth and is closest to the young woman, acting as the go-between in the developing relationship between the two young people.
The Nurse, together with the Friar, is the caregiver in the play. She understands Juliet’s feelings and is attentive to her need, is motivated by her love for the young lady, going out of her way to accommodate her mistress’s needs and desires. There is an earthy wisdom and common sense about this older woman. She is witty and in touch with youth. There is bawdiness about the way she deals with life and love:
‘I am the drudge, and toil in your delight; / But you shall bear the burden soon at night’ (Act 2, scene 5).
There is a constant reference to sexuality and the basics related to coupling. For her, sex is a vital part of existence and love – if not more important than love itself! We laugh with her and admire the manner in which she deals with the fast developing love between her mistress and Romeo: ‘…I am none of his flirt-gills, I am none of his skains-mates…’ (Act 2, scene 4).
However, when Romeo is banished and Juliet faced with the prospect of marrying Paris, the more practical side of her nature emerges. Her advice to Juliet is to marry Paris. This comes from the heart and is the result of her own practical nature and experience of life. She values life above love. When questioned by Juliet as to her sincerity, ‘Speak’st thou from thy Heart?’ her answer is immediate and sincere, ‘and from my Soul, / Too, else beshrew them both’ (Act 3, scene 5).
Her role as caregiver and surrogate mother is completed. From this moment Juliet must rely on her own ingenuity and resourcefulness, without the comfort and guidance of the Nurse, who in this crucial moment in time has abandoned her. One may fell that such action led to Juliet feeling desperate, and so consequently led to the Friar’s plan being devised ending in the final tragedy. From this it can be said that the Nurse is very much responsible for Romeo and Juliet’s death, but in truth, he little status meant that she was left in a very difficult position and had no other choice but to try to persuade Juliet to marry Paris so as to make her mistress happy again: ‘I think it best you married with the County/ O, he’s a lovely gentleman!’ And following the severity in which Capulet treated Juliet, and the way he treated the Nurse when she tried to defend Juliet, we soon realise that Capulet’s aggressive reaction meant that the Nurse could not defend Juliet any longer.
Although, there is little doubt that Lord Capulet loves his daughter, he is not prepared to tolerate what he sees as a headstrong attitude. He is a stubborn and authoritative man, not easily crossed, very aware of his social and financial position. His thoughtless, harsh words show his inflexibility:
‘Hang thee, young baggage, disobedient wretch!
I tell thee what; get thee to church a’Thursday,
Or never look me in the face.’ (Act 3, scene 5)
He has already shown in the ball scene with Tybalt that he is not accustomed to being disobeyed, and he is certainly not prepared to accept Juliet’s apparent wilfulness. His grief at the loss of his daughter at the end of the play is the price he has to pay for his misconstrued values, insensitivity and attempt to force his own will on his only daughter.
In contrast to the Montagues who seem contented in marriage, the Capulets reveal another aspect of love. Here is an estranged marriage, in all probability arranged for economic reasons or to enhance status and position – something about which the Capulets are very aware. There is a strong suggestion that Lord Capulet is tired of his wife. Paris remarks about Juliet, ‘Younger than she are happy mothers made’, to which Capulet replies, ‘And too soon marred are those so early made’ (Act 1, scene 2, lines 12-3) – surely a reference to his own wife. Thus in contrast to the true love that we see in Romeo and Juliet, we see what marriage for convenience can produce.
From this, we can conclude that the families of Romeo and especially Juliet carry a very significant sector of the blame for the final tragedy. Although the Montague family is supportive and closely allied to each other, unlike the Capulet family, which in part allows Romeo the space to mature into a sensible and responsible husband as the play progresses, they and the Capulets represent an adult view of life, as opposed to the youthful, innocent and fresh outlook of the two lovers. Theirs is an adult vision, somewhat sullied by time and experience. Both families thus present obstacles to the smooth course of love anticipated by their children. The very feud in which they are involved creates a barrier between all the citizens of Verona – and this includes their own children.
For one, Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, is a classic example of a character that comes across as defiant and antagonistic. He is a hot-headed and fiery character, and instead of helping ease the feud, he embodies the very spirit of it and is totally devoted to the violence that keeps it alive. His fiery temper could be seen in his reaction in Act 1, scene 5, as on seeing Romeo, he declares:
‘Now by the stock and honour of my kin,
To strike him dead I hold it not a sin.’
After being held by Capulet, who seemed concerned only to preserve his self-respect by ensuring the party is a success, Tybalt replies: ‘…this is a Montague, our foe’, and ends the argument with Capulet with a statement that he shall not endure Romeo once the party is over: ‘I will withdraw, but this intrusion shall/ Now seeming sweet, convert to bitt’rest gall’.
There is no character development here: from the moment Tybalt appears to the time of his death, we are confronted by a young man whose life revolves around violence, fighting and action. There is a reckless bravado to Tybalt, a loyalty only to family and fighting. He prompts Romeo to violence, creating the circumstances that lead to Romeo’s banishment – and thus he too shares a great proportion of the responsibility of Romeo and Juliet’s death and is a man well deserving of the title, ‘Prince of Cats’ in Act 2, scene 4, and later, ‘King of Cats’ in Act 3, scene 1.
The role played by Mercutio in the fatal duel which ultimately resulted in the Friar’s plan and then Romeo and Juliet’s death is a noteworthy one, and must also be taken into account. For Mercutio, unlike many other characters in the play, was the friend of both the Montagues and the Capulets, yet instead of using his position of influence to make peace between the families, it could be argued that his light-hearted approach to everything in life resulted not only to his own death, but in due course to the death of his friend Romeo, whom he tried to protect in the fight with Tybalt, and Romeo’s only true love, Juliet.
Although not of the house of Montague, Mercutio sides with his friend Romeo. He is one of the ‘helpers’ in the play and as a best friend and confidant to Romeo, he plays much the same role as does the Nurse in the Capulet family. He is supportive, defending the self-esteem of his friend when Tybalt chooses so rudely to insult Romeo, his as yet unrevealed, newly married kinsman.
We come to know Mercutio early on in the play. Just before the Montagues gatecrash the Capulet party, Mercutio delivers his ‘Queen Mab’ speech. Through this, Mercutio tells of his feelings that dreams only reflect one’s desires, hopes and fears and not the truth: ‘True, I talk of dreams/ Which are the children of an idle brain …’ He uses his imagination to deliver a mystical piece which mocks Romeo for giving in to love. He is angry with Romeo, which Romeo senses and responds by calming him down: ‘Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!’ Through this scene we also learn that although Mercutio has a light-hearted attitude to life, his friendship with Romeo can lead him to explode in anger so as to defend what he truly believes in and whom he truly cares for. His natural wit is mostly evident: he is a high-spirited young man, quick with words, ready to enjoy life and joke about love and commitment. Later in the play these characteristics are again evident as he jests with the Nurse, and also in his interaction with Tybalt before the fatal duel.
His death brings a moment of truth and misfortune to the play as we see yet another young life sacrificed for the archaic feud between the Montagues and Capulets. However his prophetic words, a reminder of the revenge theme, ring out for us to remember: ‘a plague a’ both your houses!’ It is as the result of his good friend and companion’s death that Romeo at last challenges and kills the fiery Tybalt. This therefore leads one to conclude that Mercutio may be responsible for not doing enough to help make peace between the two feuding families, but he surely must not be held responsible for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, for in truth, he is another victim, another life sacrificed for this ancient feud.
The final main character involved in the tragedy is Friar Lawrence, for he is the person responsible for Romeo and Juliet’s marriage and is the one who devised the plan that led to their deaths. However, to blame Friar Lawrence for being the one responsible for their deaths is misleading of the truth for his chief concern is the good of the citizens of Verona and in the love of Romeo and Juliet he sees a means to end the conflict and bring peace to the city. He thus does all he can to facilitate the marriage and ensure that it succeeds. To this end he makes plans for Romeo to wait in Mantua until Juliet can join him and, when things do go wrong, helps Juliet to the best of his ability.
However, the Friar is also rendered powerless by Fate. Thus circumstances go wrong, in spite of his careful plans, ending in the deaths of both the ‘star-crossed lovers’. That this does bring together the two families is, in part, the result of the care and concern of the Friar, but again we are reminded of the great price that all have to pay for peace to be restored.
The Friar is sensible and reasonable. He deals with people with respect and consideration. He puts his faith in God and believes in the power of the Church to heal and reconcile. However, he is also human. This is evident in the scene in the tomb when he fails to assist Juliet at the crucial moment when she most needs his support. There is a sense of terror and helplessness in his words to Juliet at this crucial moment:
‘I hear some noise, lady. Come from that nest
Of death, contagion, and unnatural sleep.
A greater power than we can contradict
Hath thwarted our intents …
Come go, good Juliet. I dare no longer stay.’ (Act 5, scene 3)
We should however also remember that it is essential for Juliet to die that order may be restored – so the Friar must be temporarily removed, his strength marred by temporary caution. For purposes of character we could see his ‘betrayal’ as a flaw, although it is understandable that he should be fearful at this moment in the action.
On the whole, however, the character does elicit our sympathy and we admire the manner in which the Friar deals with life and those who rely on his support for comfort and direction. His honesty in retelling the events that took place in the tomb, and earlier in the play, re-establishes our belief in the basic goodness of the man. Notice the dignity and depth of feeling in his last words in the play:
‘All this I know, and to the marriage
Her Nurse is privy; and if ought in this
Miscarried by my fault, let my old life
Be sacrificed, some hour before his time,
Unto the rigour of severest law.’ (Act 5, scene 3)
Not only is the role of fate apparent here, but it is also reflected in Romeo and Juliet’s constant affirmation to the role destiny plays until their deaths, which emphasizes one of the important factors that Shakespeare wanted his audience to recognise. Romeo’s thoughts and feelings concerning the role played by destiny are parallel to that of Juliet. By saying, “some consequence yet hanging in the stars shall bitterly begin his fearful date”, Romeo is acknowledging, from the first act, that his destiny will be of “untimely death”, and that he has no control over it.
Juliet too recognises that their lives are completely dependent upon fate and destiny. She tries to take control, but is left to face reality at the end, when she is bewildered by the apparent contrast between what she thought she was in control of and that of reality. Her reaction when finally facing reality can be seen from the quote: “All slain, all dead… There is no end, no limit, measure, bound…” For this the two families cannot be held responsible, as from this quote it is apparent that they have no control or power over each one’s destiny.
In addition, the idea of fate being in total control was immediately established in the chorus as Romeo and Juliet were identified as ‘star-crossed lovers’ and further emphasized by the Friar’s alarming warning: ‘These violent delights have violent ends’.
The feeling of complete isolation felt by both Romeo and Juliet just before their tragic deaths; makes this drama increasingly more tragic. Juliet is left to defend Romeo alone when, for the first time, the nurse lacks in thought of Juliet’s feelings. Juliet is left to ponder her fate, alone in her bedroom, while Romeo, alone in Mantua, awaits a letter from the Friar. For this, the two families are partly to blame.
However, Shakespeare, through Romeo and Juliet, feels that isolation is not only due to the lack of support by one’s family but also by society as a whole. He urges every individual to play a more active role in ensuring that every person in his/her society does not feel alone, and that he/she has a sense of belonging to that particular society. The ancient feud between the Capulet and Montague households which, led to the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, could have been prevented from escalating and even dissolved had society played a more active role.
On the whole, the role of parents or parent substitutes is an important factor in the happiness of their children. In Romeo and Juliet, the mistakes made by the Montague and Capulet households were partly to blame for the tragic ending of the play, but many other factors also contributed. For one, the role of fate and destiny, the other, the effects isolation has on an individual. Society as a whole is also to blame, as for example, the feelings of isolation and desperation that both Romeo and Juliet experienced towards the end of the play could have both been avoided had individuals in their society played a more active role in bringing the two families together and in ensuring its youth is not lost as a consequence of this ancient feud.
Through this tragic play, Shakespeare wants his audience to be aware that although destiny and fate play a major role in every person’s life, tragedies like the death of Romeo and Juliet can be prevented if the older generation’s greed, desire for wealth, self-pride and prejudice are forgotten during situations of immense importance and complexity. It is the fact that Romeo and Juliet’s death could have been so easily avoidable, that makes this drama the tragedy it is: