Romeo and Juliet – Text Response

“Masters of their destiny, victims of their fate.”
Shakespeare’s tragic play of Romeo and Juliet is a masterful work, in that the language and performance inspires, sways and impresses audiences, but the story itself is not one that we should give a great deal of undue merit. The lessons learned from the unfortunate pair are ultimately juvenile. It is a good thing that at the plays conclusion the houses of Capulet and Montague are resolved to peace. Such was the greater destiny of the “star crossed lovers”. However, the audience is in no doubt that such was the unintended outcome of the lovers’ actions was marked by influence of the babe Cupid rather than the wise Minerva. We would hope that youth might be masters of their destiny, and the events of Romeo and Juliet do present that children need not continue the bloody grievances of their parents. Nevertheless, two wrongs do not make a right, and the foolishness of the two young victims need not be confused with fate.
The problem in Verona presented in the preliminary scenes is that the feud between the two great houses has reached fever pitch. Three times the families have thrown the streets into riot, and much blood has been shed over a perceived enmity that is truly “A plague on both your houses!” Prince Escalus quickly cracks the sads, cracks the whip, and threatens to crack the heads of any who defy his call for law and order. A new peace is sorely needed – could it be that a new generation might through love heroically unite the houses, might “turn [their] household’s rancour to pure love”? The answer of the play is “No!” Rather than achieve Friar Lawrence’s blessing, the lovers fail to realise their destiny and the play realises Mercutio’s curse.
I blame Romeo. Yes, he might well be considered a paradigm of romantic love, but he strikes me as “too rash, too unadvis’d, too sudden” and unfortunately embodies “the unreasonable fury of a beast”. Forgive me for calling love a monster, but Master Romeo is no young master. His attitude to the troubles of the city is reckless and careless, and summed up in his reply to the dangers inherent to the unintended invitation to the Capulet masque “But he that hath the steerage of my course /Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen!” Despite the heavy responsibility for his house upon his shoulders, Romeo’s thinking hardly rises above his belt, and I give him little credit. Instead of dealing with the troubles between the families, Romeo is instead wholly and fatally consumed by his personal affairs.
Juliet fares little better, as she proves “Alike bewitched by the charm of looks”. Her father understands that she is too young to commit to marriage, and too immature to understand of her infatuation that “These violent delights have violent ends”. Like Romeo, she lacks the wisdom and the necessary “patience” that Balthasar pleads to Romeo for over her apparent corpse. Faced with a difficult situation in which she is denied her desires she imprudently concludes “If all else fail, myself have power to die”. Such a fatal conclusion is the drastic recourse of a pair who need not have proven powerless to their passions, had they only exercised better judgment. Unfortunately, like her partner in suicide, they fail to consider that to “Deny thy father and refuse thy name” should be a reaction to the enmity of their houses – indeed, a responsible determination between them – and not a compulsion of immature fancy. It is not that they are unable to change their fate; they simply do not exercise the power to realise a better destiny.
It should be obvious from this essay that I’m not a believer in the form of love espoused by Shakespeare. There are lessons that can be learned in the contests fought by love in his tragedies: that for truth over jealousy in Othello; that for commitment over greed in King Lear and The Merchant of Venice; that for honour over pride and ambition in MacBeth and Hamlet. Shakespeare, however, understood his audiences of the romantic era well, and so instead of the forms of love shared by later 20th Century playwrights such as Brecht and Chekov who demonstrated realism, Romeo and Juliet presents a playful, passionate idealism. Romeo and Juliet, as such, is a masterpiece of words, rather than genuine espousal of values or truths that might advise us well about destiny or mastery in the world, and I personally find the characters very foolish as a result. That their fate proves fatal is their own stupid fault!

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