You Do Realize Romeo And Juliet Is A Tragedy, Not A Romance, Right?

A question from the audience!

What is the cause of the tragedy in Romeo and Juliet?

Is this an open and debatable question, or is it one that has a specific answer that popular opinion gets wrong?  The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is not in the romantic notion “Oh no, it’s so sad they couldn’t be together!”  It’s in the stupidity of the adults who don’t see the error of their ways until Fate kills their children for them and says “Now do you get it???” Or is it?  Discuss.  Or perhaps I’ve misinterpreted the question about the “cause” of the tragedy? Bonus question – what do you think happens after the conclusion of the play?  Do you think that Capulet and Montague really do learn their lesson, and the feud is over?  Or are they merely going through the paces (for some reason the images of Heat Miser and Snow Miser from Year Without A Santa Claus just came to mind…), and will be at each other’s throats again 5 minutes after the Prince dismisses them?  Oh dear god somebody gouge out my brain for thinking of this, but I blame Disney…..could you imagine Romeo & Juliet : The Sequel? !

20 thoughts on “You Do Realize Romeo And Juliet Is A Tragedy, Not A Romance, Right?

  1. Romeo & Juliet is not a Tragedy. Structurally, it is a Comedy, where people die.

    Romeo is not Hamlet, or Othello, or Mac. He's a Claudio, Orlando, Orsino – he's a piner and a whiner.

    Look at the other usual elements of a Shakespearean Comedy – smart female lead, disguises, mistimings, musicians, secret weddings, & clowns. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: Romeo & Juliet. The friar's plan is even the SAME PLAN used in Much Ado!

    Moreover, a Comedy technically ends with a marriage of some sort – between people or ideas. In this case, it's the end of the feud. A true Comedy!

    What makes it a great show is that, before it makes you cry, it first makes you laugh. It doesn't start with a storm or witches or ghosts, but a bunch of Italian guys talking about sex and violence – then peacocking themselves into a non-mortal fight. Then you've got the standard Comedic storyline. Only, when things would normally be revealed, people begin to die. Tybalt doesn't mean to kill Mercutio – Romeo gets in the way in his desperation to STOP the fighting.

    Cause of the Tragedy? Sure, we can talk about the feud, it's a very reasonable theory. There's also the view that everyone in the show is selfish, except those truly in love – Romeo, Juliet, Paris – and their selflessness doesn't fit in the real world.

    There also has to be a reason the play talks about stars so often. Shakespeare presents us with a show where, no matter what these kids do, Fate will screw them. These Comedic characters are still behaving as if there's a happy ending out there for them. It's a hopeful show, right up to the final moments. Only when Romeo dies are things irredeemable.

    More than just playing with format and structure, Shakespeare was providing a more realistic counterpoint to his happy-go-lucky Comedies. Sometimes things go wrong.

    As an aside, when you talk about the parents, you're letting the Friar off the hook far too easily. At any point in this show he could have stopped the cascading disaster. But he's a coward, as shown quite clearly in the final scene. If there is a character I loathe in the show, it's him. The Nurse knew about the wedding, but the Friar also knew about the fake death.

    There's a musical parodyof R&J called THE TRIAL OF FRIAR LAWRENCE (or something to that effect). And whenever I stage the show, the Prince's final "Some punished," is to him.

  2. It’s Friar Laurence who has the fatal hubris (usually designated for the protagonist in a tragedy)- he has enough pride to believe that he can end the feud between the Capulets and Montagues, with a little secret marriage- and his hubris leads to others’ downfall (Romeo and Juliet’s deaths), another classic Aristotelian tragic-hero trait.

  3. well, the sequel would hopefully be their parents rebuilding their relationships… rather than continuing to harbor that hatred for one another that resulted in so much death and destruction.

    i hate to say it but i think Baz Luhrmann’s ending to his version of r+j really focuses on that, with the chief of police yelling at them in the street and the looks on the parents’ faces. he did a great job showing that as the focal point of the tragedy.

    you wrought this. it’s all your fault.

    i also think it took me 20 years to really see that as the message instead of two horny teens who couldn’t keep it in their pants as the message. i think when i first read this, and for years after, i just thought if they cooled their jets and stopped being so damn SELFISH none of this would have happened.

  4. A post-modern response would be that the tragedy is in the teens' suicide, that these youngsters (although–just how old is Romeo?) cannot see any other way out of their situation than death, and that Shakespeare is warning us of the dangers of hasty judgment and ill-thought out action. However, I'm not sure Will had any of those intentions, particularly since he borrowed so much of the storyline from Pyramus and Thisbe.

    In regards to the idea of a tragic hero, I'd have to agree with sonata that Friar Laurence is often overlooked yet deserves much of the blame for coercing Romeo and Juliet into those aforementioned rash decisions.

    I'd also have to say that, in my opinion, if you love the Bard, there aren't many "wrong" ways to teach Shakespeare. I've taught several of the plays to high school kids (in fact, I could probably recite the bulk of R&J to you right now), and if the kids understand a play and its relevancy to modern life, and they also walk away with some basic knowledge of Shakespeare and his plays, then I consider the unit a success.

  5. david, you’re amazing!

    okay, so i’ll laugh hysterically next weekend when we do the play.
    i’m sure people will look at me funny, but you’ve got a point.

    and romeo is a whiner. true.

    to be honest, it was this play that prevented me from becoming a high school english teacher. i decided that 20 years of this play and teaching it to kids who might not care a tinker’s dam about it really crushed my spirit so i changed tack and did something else.

    now at 41, i wish i hadn’t. especially when reading summations like yours.

  6. [Deleted and commented again to remove nasty typo that made it look like I don't know how to use an apostrophe s properly…]

    Ok, so apparently it's not a simple question? 🙂

    I would have to dig pretty deep into childhood memories to recall what exactly we were taught about tragic heroes and A.C. Bradley back in 9th grade English class, but does Romeo fit the model (tragic flaw, actions beget actions….) of the others? Or is the whole thing screwed up and R&J just get jammed into the format because somebody along the line stuck it in with the tragedies? Have we been teaching it wrong all this time? That's certainly a big position to take. Most folks would likely argue that R&J is the most popular of Shakespeare's plays entirely because we all remember it from English class (not because it is necessarily the best, by any measure). No matter what other plays you studied, chances are you did that one. So is everybody's lesson one in Shakespeare the wrong lesson?

  7. Ha! Yes, I'm being a little melodramatic calling it a Comedy, espcially when the word Tragedy is right there in the title. But I'm glad you all have taken the point. In its underpinnings, R&J has a lot more in common with 12th Night than with Hamlet – even if only for size of the female role. Stage-time is split between R&J, whereas HAMLET is about Hamlet, and Ophelia shows up. Even Lady Mac has less stage time than you think.

    I think he knew what he was doing. The prologue is a dead giveaway. When does Shakespeare use prologues? Troilus and Cressida, because he's mimicking the Greek style. Henry V, as political commentary. And here.

    Why here? Because he's afraid he's going to get strung-up after the show. A guy comes out at the beginning of the play and gives the whole show away, as if to say, "Don't laugh too much, folks, 'cause they're gonna die. Enjoy the show!"

    Then, in case anyone has forgotten, right after the party the Prologue comes back to remind everyone. "Glad you're having fun, but they're still gonna die!"

    (It's interesting to me that in the First Folio, there's no Prologue at all. Was it tacked on later?)

    Anyway, I'm not saying that everything at the end should be played for laughs. I'm just pointing out that the Tragedy hurts more when you've been laughing for a couple hours.

    Duane, I'm curious what you mean about "not how, but what is taught." Don't get it – you mean what shows?

    Finally, I'll bite and ask the question – if Romeo is a Tragic hero, what's his flaw? What flaw does he own that Orlando doesn't have in spades?

  8. Great dialogue. As a teacher who does love to teach Shakespeare and loves to help students "get it," I think there is much truth in what everyone says here.

    Certainly, Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, but David is a wise man. I tend to discuss at length with my students that the difference between "tragedy" and "comedy" is often razor thin in Shakespeare. Many of Shakespeare's comedies start with tremendous tragedy – Hermia is to be killed, Rosalind whole life is falling apart, Antonio's entire fortune is at sea (and he knows that Bassanio loves a woman passionately), everyone is shipwrecked in The Tempest! On the other hand, we have some huge moments on humor that begin tragedies (or at least are inserted into them early on) – the porter in Macbeth, Richard's incredibly evil demeanor in much of Richard III (and Margaret), the entire first act of R & J is funny and banal, one could even argue Iago in Othello (as well as the Roderigo sub-plot). To me that is his great talent – humor in death, tragedy in joy. I realize it is grossly oversimplified, but it does resonant with students who think about the laughs that can come in the midst of horrid events, or the tears that can erupt when things seem to be going well.

    Another reality is that something is broken in the teaching of Shakespeare. Years of lecturing at students has resulted in many people who would respond negatively to Duane's questions. The language is hard to understand initially. Most students think their parents have strange phrases, and those are only 20-30 years out of date. The passing of 400 tears has resulted in a huge gap to bridge. But, I find it much less difficult when I spend the time to help the students recognize what they do understand. Rather than "telling" them exactly what is happening, I ask them what they do understand and then assist as they dig more of it out. The other thing that hamstrings most teachers is that they are unwilling to "go bawdy." I often laugh when parents complain about a Walter Mosley novel or that someone drops an "f-bomb" in something, but have no problem that I am teaching Romeo and Juliet. The Bard is far more "raw" when you know that the meanings are layered. By showing students how amazing the language is, they tend to buy into the material much more. Do all of my students "enjoy" Shakespeare, no. But, many of them do, and they all learn something (even if it is how gross it was to be a groundling in the Globe).

    As for the play itself, it used to drive me nuts. Romeo still does, but I use that as a way to get them to think about Shakespeare's possible views on men and women. I love that there is and is not fault all around. Romeo and Juliet certainly have a huge hand in what happens. Of course the friar promotes things, but he also weakly points out Romeo's pattern. Plus, how was he to know that Friar John would get quarantined? And, yes, the parents did feud, but Lord Capulet's animosity was not great enough to allow Tybalt to kick Romeo out of the party. All are at fault, and yet none are because the whole thing is star-crossed.

    I think a sequel would make me wretch, even if it was the parents reconciling. As for Romeo's "tragic flaw," I would love to say, "his grating personality," but I actually think it is his rash behavior. His snap judgments create most, if not all, of his problems.

  9. Ooooo, Erin, I’m going to strongly disagree with you on those last points. First, there’s no guarantee that the teacher of Shakespeare loves it. I hang out periodically with a teacher of Shakespeare who basically tells me not to talk about it, she gets enough at school, and wants to know only what she has to teach.

    Second, I would define the “wrong” way as something like this — if you follow up after the class and ask the kids what they think of Shakespeare, how many will use words like “hard” and “hate”?

    Now, if I went out and surveyed a bunch of high school kids and asked what they think of Shakespeare, where do you think the average would fall, loved it or hated it? Understood it or didn’t?

    Something’s wrong in the way it’s taught. But it’s threads like this that make me wonder whether it’s not just how it’s taught, but what is taught in the first place.

  10. It’s all Greek to me …

    Shakespeare didn’t read Aristotle – he certainly didn’t write Greek Tragedy. What he knew of the theory (if anything) was mainly ignored in his plays – and those of his contemporaries (just what are those comedy scenes doing there?).

    Does any tragic character in Shakespeare have ‘hubris’? Is the tragedy of Shakespeare to be found not in the character (another dead end of scholarship and misapplied theory) but elsewhere?

    Death is not the Tragedy – it is the separation from God and eternal damnation the self hatred of suicide brings – it is social upheaval with the associated deaths of Mercutio, Tybalt and Paris (murdered by Romeo in case anyone forgets).

    To decide the cause, we need to decide the meaning Shakespeare is applying to Tragedy in this play – and I’d suggest dumping everything you’ve learnt in school.

    (Just to be a soupçon more provocative – we know what happens to the Friar, off he goes and does a walk on part in Two Gentlemen of Verona.)

    Written 4.30 am local time!

  11. Hi David! What I meant was that traditionally I think we would have argued that the methods of teaching Shakespeare – “Here, memorize the balcony scene, and whatever you do for the love of god don’t ever see the movie until after the test” – is what was in error (the “how”). But after a discussion like this, with such a large number of ideas that I certainly don’t recall hearing in high school — play as comedy more than tragedy, Friar Laurence as instrument of destruction, and so on — made me question whether classrooms of children as being the wrong things about Romeo and Juliet, forcing it into the same formula as Hamlet and Macbeth when maybe it deserves some different attention.

  12. Have we got tied-up in the problem of genre?

    The question asked ‘from the audience’ was about the cause of the tragedy – the post title asks if the play is a tragedy – the difference?

    Have we been teaching Romeo and Juliet wrong? Too right: ‘Education’s’ view of the play is stuck in a cultural context of over a century ago and is based on the Romantic view of suicide is beautiful (a most un-Elizabethan view) – teachers are always asking ‘innocent’ questions like, “Who is to blame for the death of Romeo and Juliet?”

    It is worth looking at the effect such a question has – this links to how people answer that question:

    (I’ve split it into 3 in the hope of fitting it in)

    – and comparing it with the discussion here.

  13. As Alan said on the Hamlet's father discussion, it is definitely worth tripping over and reading what folks have to say. Alan, I thought your piece was brilliant! As for comparing the discussions, I think both have merit. Clearly, the dialogue there is far more focused, but I love the breadth of this one. Since you in particular focused on the teaching of Shakespeare (and I am one who does said activity), I will do my utmost to constantly keep the dialogue focused on the deeper issues in the play. I have discussed in the past (and get to again this year, since I am once again teaching R & J to ninth graders) that suicide was not glamorous in Elizabethan society. I also tend to rail on both Romeo and Juliet for their fleeting decisions. As I have constantly stated here, I love the ambiguity specifically because it allows my students to arrive at their own insights. At the same time, I have always believed that Shakespeare has a terribly low opinion of romantic love. The maudlin and rash behaviors of Romeo and Juliet underscore the foolishness of rushing head long into "relationship" (makes me wonder about his own "relationship). In many of his plays the "quick" love is often the most disastrous (or most ridiculed) love. At the same time, you are totally on the mark when you chastise my profession as a whole, we do take the easy route far too often, using questions like "Who is to blame?" which invites nothing more than "knowledge" of the play. I can't promise that it will be on the test, but I love the idea of your question.

  14. The cause of the tragic elements in R&J is not a twist of fate, as many critics have said makes it an unconventional play. Rather, it has to do with the flaw of many, society's flaw. Filled with hate and discrimination, allowing their pride to hinder the open relationship of two people madly in love, is the flaw. So, to be conventional, one does not need to have just one character flaw, rather, kudos to shakespeare for making his plays have greater tragic meanings as opposed to a simple character flaw. Macbeth is similar, where, it's not the flaw of Macbeth, rather the flaw of general human nature. Lear has aspects of both, but it's mostly conventional. Julius is the flaw of humans to be greedy, and Brutus to be gulliable, etc, I could go on for hours. So, instead of trying to brand R&J as "unconventional", they should look a bit deeper, after all, shakespeare was certainly not "conventional", nor were any great thinkers.

  15. Pleases no sequel. Having studied the play and am in the process of writing an essay on whether Romeo and Juliet fulfils A.C. Bradley’s criteria (who by the way should write like he lived in the 20th century- since he did. Who cares if you’re the ‘best’ scholar on him and his works, you still can’t get away with trying to write like the Bard!), i know that Romeo and Juliet should never be Part IIed. Whoever commit that crime would have to be killed.

    By the way, would you count Juliet as a Tragic Hero? She does tick the same sort of criteria as Romeo, she’s just female and a few years younger…

  16. By the way, thankyou Main Man for arguing that R+J is a tragedy. I would have cried and restarted my essay if I didn’t find someone that supported my view (and entire essay) that Romeo and Juliet qualifies as a Shakespearean Tragedy.

    Romeo does have a tragic flaw; he is immature, his behaviour is controlled by his emotions and he has no experience of the world which he could use to make a slightly more sensible decision. For any of those reading and thinking “that sounds familiar!” it’s true, Romeo’s flaw is that he is nothing more than a teenager…please don’t say he’s a whiner didn’t we all as teenagers (or don’t we all as teenagers, depending on who is reading this…)

  17. Thankyou for noting that Shakespeare uses comedy in his other plays which are regarded as the ‘great tragedies’. That helped me out of a difficult dilemma; having studied only The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream before this, I had no knowledge of his other tragic works and was wondering how to address Shakespeare’s use of comdey in what I regard as a tragedy.

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