Romeo and Juliet is often thought to be a play about enduring love, the romantic ideal of lovers everywhere. However, what many casual readers of the play fail to realize is that while the play encapsulates love, the main theme of the piece is the violence and chaos encompassing Verona. "From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean" (Prologue. 3-4). From the beginning of the play we are told of the violence and chaos and its place in Verona's society. When the play actually kicks in, the first scene has Sampson and Gregory speaking of violence, and then Benvolio of the Montagues and Tybalt of the Capulets fighting. The play begins and ends with violence, confusion, and chaos. These themes are brought on by the play's central concepts, which are love or passion, prejudice and pride, and power. These themes provoke and cause the violence that occurs within our "fair Verona."
Prejudice and Pride
Themes of prejudice and pride in Romeo and Juliet are headed by the famous Capulet-Montague feud. Even if there were no other examples of pride and prejudice causing violence in Romeo and Juliet, this alone causes enough for the entire play. Montague and Capulet are so tainted by their old hatred for one another, they fail to see negative impact this hatred has had on their families. Proud Tybalt is very nearly incited to violence when he finds out Romeo, a Montague, has made his way into the Capulet's party. "This, by voice, should be a Montague. Fetch me a rapier boy (I.V. 54-55). Tybalt is ready to fight Romeo, even against penalty of death, as promised by Prince Escalus; and while Tybalt is calmed by his uncle Capulet, the brimming pride of the young man is not so easily satiated as foreshadowed in his statement "I will withdraw, but this intrusion shall/Now seeming sweet, convert to bitt'rest gall" (I.V. 91-92).
And bitt'rest gall indeed does Tybalt bring upon himself and the Montagues when he sends a letter to Romeo challenging him to a duel. The letter alone is evidence of the long standing pride of the Capulet family for which Tybalt is so accustomed. The challenge too, illustrates the Capulet pride in that Tybalt will not let Romeo's trespass go, but he will not gun him down in cold blood on the street either. He seeks a duel, very traditionally the gentleman's method of settling a score. Unfortunately, the duel does not go as planned, and both Tybalt and Mercutio are killed in this scene due to their own pride. Romeo, refusing to fight, incites Mercutio to defend Romeo and his honor, while Tybalt refuses to stand idly by as Mercutio insults him. Indeed, Romeo's intention to maintaining peace among he and Tybalt was thwarted, and Tybalt and Mercutio fulfilled the former's prophecy of spilling blood for Romeo's intrusion. Although Tybalt perishes, in a way, he accomplished his goal of bringing about the bitterest fate for Romeo as Romeo is then banished from Verona, and his love, Juliet.
Looking further back for evidence of pride and prejudice acting upon the players of Romeo and Juliet, we can again study Tybalt, yet in the beginning scene of the play in which Tybalt's most characteristic pride comes in the way of peace. It is this scene that provides the reader with a look into Tybalt's personality, and the reason why his is so prone to violence against the Montagues. The pride and prejudice instilled in him from his family's ancient hate runs deep. In the first scene in which we see the Capulet and Montague servants fighting, Tybalt calls to Benvolio "What are thou drawn among these heartless hinds?/ Turn thee, Benvolio, look upon thy death" (I.I. 66-67). In this passage Tybalt calls even his own men "heartless hinds" because they are below him in rank, and he scoffs at Benvolio for having his sword drawn among such lowly men. This is the first display of the pride that creates violence, but Tybalt takes it further, and draws his sword against Benvolio even after the Montague asks for Tybalt's aid in subduing the violent outbreak among the servants. "What, drawn, and talk of peace! I hate the word,/ As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee: / Have at thee, coward (I.I. 70-72). Clearly Tybalt's code of ethics is drawn from his pride, and his pride calls to him to violence. He simply cannot see a Montague and leave him be, for a Montague to be in his presence, there must be hell to pay. As was detailed in the aforementioned fight between Tybalt, Mercutio, and Romeo, this code of pride causes both the Montagues and Capulets to suffer terribly. In the end, Tybalt, one of the Capulet's highest and most valued family members is slain; Mercutio a dear friend to Romeo and the Montagues is dead; and Romeo is banished from Verona.
It is important to note that each of these central fights in Romeo and Juliet only leads to further violence. This beginning fight creates mounting animosity between the Montagues and Capulets, but it remains manageable, and the decree of Prince Escalus also seems to put a damper on the proud fires of the Montague and Capulet men. However, the death of Tybalt and Mercutio, and the banishment of Romeo causes all-out chaos to ensue within Verona, and within both of the powerful families. Bloodshed solves nothing in Verona, bloodshed only breaks new mutiny, and indeed new mutiny is what Tybalt and Romeo's bout causes.
The final bloodshed we see on account of pride and prejudice occurs in the tomb where Juliet lay "dead." There Paris comes to her to weep over his lost love. While there he encounters Romeo, who is also there to see Juliet one last time. Little does Paris know that Romeo means no harm, and he quickly assails him as the murderer of both Juliet and Tybalt. Paris' pride for the Capulet family, especially Juliet who he thought was going to be his wife, is his downfall. Where it not for his own pride, and the deep prejudice he felt against Romeo for murdering Juliet and Tybalt, Romeo never would have been forced into killed Paris in the tomb.
This same scene yields one of the most powerful examples of our next theme, love as a cause of violence. Juliet herself acknowledges this in act one scene five with the statement "My only love sprung from my only hate" (I.V.138.). Even Juliet realizes the implications of loving one so at odds with her family. Yet, even with this realization she pursues the relationship anyway, a fact that only incites further violence and contempt between Montague and Capulet. As illustrated by the final scene between Romeo and Juliet, their deep love for one another results in a significant amount of violence.
Before The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet comes to a head with the deaths of the lovers, violence is threatened on a number of occasions. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, love doesn't save them from pain and violence, but pushes them ever closer as the play ensues. Violence doesn't become an exception in Romeo and Juliet's life, but a rule. After Romeo's banishment from Verona, Romeo threatens suicide if he cannot be near Juliet. "Ha, banishment? Be merciful, say 'death';/ For exile hath more terror in his look/ Much more than death. Do not say 'banishment' (III.ii. 12-14). Romeo cannot stand to think of banishment from Verona, because this means banishment from Juliet as well. He goes on to state:
"There is no world without Verona walls,
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.
Hence "banished" is banish'd from the world,
And world's exile is death; then 'banished'
Is death misterm'd. Calling death 'banished,'
Thou cut'st my head off with a golden axe,
And smilest upon the stroke that murders me."
Romeo later brandishes a knife and offers to stab himself for causing Juliet so much pain, and for being forced to stay away from her.
In act one scene five we again see Juliet refer to the love that was brought about by hate when addressing her parents about the issue of marrying Paris. In reply to her father's order that she marry and that her refusal is a lack of thankfulness for what her parents have given her Juliet replies, "Not proud that you have, but thankful that you have./ Proud can I never be of what I hate,/ But thankful even for hate that is meant love" (III.V. 146-148). Juliet's realization that she loves someone her parents will never approve of, and that as such, her situation is dire, leads her to thoughts of suicide.
Furthermore, the morning after Romeo and Juliet's first and only sexual encounter together, both experience terrifying visions of death, both foreshadowing the tragedy to come, and evidence of the hostility surrounding their love. Upon Romeo's departure to Mantua, the place of his exile, Juliet compares Romeo and his situation to death. "Methinks I see thee now, thou art so low,/ As one dead in the bottom on a tomb./ Either my eyesight fails, or thou lookest pale" (III.V. 54-57). Romeo too experiences such a vision during his time in Mantua. "I dreamt my lady came and found me dead - " (V.I. 6). Instead of love being a cause for happiness and celebration, these two lovers are tortured with separation, bloodshed, nightmares, and suicidal thoughts.
At this point, we can return to the last scene in which Paris is killed by Romeo. While we've seen what pride and prejudice has done to Paris, we can also evaluate the part that love plays in Paris' death. Romeo cannot stand to say away from Juliet, and so he goes to her tomb where she lays waiting to awaken from the potion she drank. Romeo is so determined to see Juliet, and to die beside her, that no one can stop him. Even when Paris draws a sword against him, and Romeo is unable to convince him to lay it down, Romeo will not leave. His love for Juliet, and his desire to be next to her, is so strong he is willing to kill Paris is order to achieve it. Furthermore, his love for Juliet is so strong, and so encompassing of everything within him, that he is unwilling to go on living if Juliet is no longer with him. Romeo's ultimate show of love is his death, for only in death can he and Juliet be together forever. Drinking the poison Romeo toasts "Here's to my love" (V.III. 119)!
Sadly, Romeo and Paris' deaths are not the last in the story. Juliet too returns Romeo's deep and passionate love by stabbing herself and dying upon his chest. Seeing her lover dead beside was too much, and like Romeo, Juliet neither wanted to live in a world without her love. Juliet is so frantic to die when she learns of Romeo's death, that she is willing to die in such a violent manner. She is afraid that the watchmen will find her and that she will be carried away that she is willing to use Romeo's dagger in order to be with him forever. This violent end is a perfect illustration to the violence that the love of Juliet and her Romeo experienced and caused. Thus, in the end, the deep love between Romeo and Juliet was the thing that killed them.
Although it was love that made Romeo down the deadly poison, and give Juliet the strength to plunge a dagger through her chest, it cannot be said to have been the sole driving factor behind their deaths. Nor can love, pride, and prejudice, be alone responsible for the violence in Verona. The third and last factor (since pride and prejudice were grouped as one factor) contributing to the violence and chaos in Verona, is power. It is the power struggle between the Montagues and Capulet's, after all, that puts the romance of Romeo and Juliet at such odds in the first place. While neither family holds political office or lordship, both hold social power, and in the city of Verona they feud over that power. So mighty is their feud that fights break out in the streets when members from these two families encounter one another. The violence between them is so strong that Prince Escalus announces "If ever you disturb our streets again/ Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace" (I.I. 96-97). The Prince is forced to put the death penalty over the head of any Montague or Capulet that sheds blood in Verona in hopes of finally ending the struggle between them. Here we see just how bad the violence is, and the Prince is in a power struggle with the two families to maintain in Verona. However, in his power struggle to maintain the peace, he must threaten more violence.
Additionally, Romeo and Juliet are in a constant struggle with society to be able to love one another. Opposition for their love comes from all sides, and Romeo and Juliet have to fight and push to gain any power over their own fates. This, in turn, causes violence. For example, Romeo persists in seeing Juliet, even though he knows that it will cause problems. Furthermore, in Romeo's struggle to gain sway over his powerless situation he disregards his own safety. "And but thou love me, let them find me here; My life were better ended by their hate,/ Than death prolonged, wanting of thy love" (II.II. 76-78). In this passage we see that Romeo is more concerned with his love for Juliet than with the fact that he is defy society.
In essence, the entire love between Romeo and Juliet is power struggle between the lovers and the world. Everything is against them. The famous quote, "O, Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?/ Deny thy father and refuse thy name;/ Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,/ And I'll no longer be a Capulet" (II.II. 33-36), illustrates the most prominent power struggle Romeo and Juliet must endure. Both must challenge the ancient grudge between their families, both must deny their parents, heritage, and names, in order to be together. This takes a huge toll on both as Romeo is charged with trying to keep the peace between his men and Tybalts, and the choice of whether to avenge his friend Mercutio's death or not; and Juliet is charged with dealing with the fact that Romeo has been responsible for the death of her most beloved Tybalt.
Furthermore, Juliet must deal with the struggle between herself and her father. For Juliet, the struggle against her family was even greater than Romeo's. Being a woman, Juliet struggled to gain the power to make her own decisions. Her father, Capulet, is set on Juliet marrying Paris, and in his mind Juliet has no choice in the matter. The struggle of gaining some sort of power over her own fate is so difficult and so trying, that Juliet finally resigns that she can just kill herself if her father will not abide by her wishes "If all else fail, myself have power to die" (IV.I. 242).
To make matters worse, Capulet refuses to allow Juliet to chose her own husband because it is his job to secure an heir. Since Capulet has no son, he wishes Juliet to marry into a powerful family, and Paris is a kinsman to the Prince. As if this weren't enough, Capulet feels the pressure because Tybalt is of age and readiness to be an heir should Juliet not wed. The internal power struggle between Tybalt and Capulet force Juliet ever closer to her ultimate choice to be with Romeo at any cost.
Although Romeo and Juliet is a powerful and passionate romance, that romance is surrounded by violence, hatred, and chaos, and ultimately, that deep, passionate romance causes so much of the violence in Verona. The deaths of Romeo and Juliet are a result of the deep love between them, the pride and prejudices held by both Montagues and Capulets, and by the power struggles between the various parties in the play. As was illustrated in the essay, each of the events that define the story are a result of one of these three themes. Continually we see each of these themes get in the way of the true happiness of Romeo and Juliet. Although there is a deep and genuine love between Romeo and Juliet, the myriad of prejudices, the pride of their families, and the struggle against society and family, leaves both youths struggling against their own nightmares and terrors for some peace in what in what they desire. The struggles for power and the prejudices between the two families turn young innocent love into an anxiety filled battle in which Romeo and Juliet become "Poor sacrifices of (our) enmity" (V.III. 304). It is only when they both resign themselves to death in order to gain peace, privacy, and a place where they can love each other forever, that society and the two families realize the errors of their ways, and how much they both contributed to the degradation and death of Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd Edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company (1997).
Shakespeare, William, Bryant, Joseph, A. "The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet." New York: Signet Classic, 1998. xxxvi.
Alex Donoghue on June 27, 2018:
This is my first comment so I'm a little bit nervous,
but I am overjoyed that I have just had the pleasure of reading this piece of fine English,
keep up the good work,