In the Prologue, line six, Shakespeare tells his audience that “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life”. How far does Shakespeare prepare his audience for the tragic end of Romeo and Juliet?
It is well known that the story of Romeo and Juliet is probably the most famous love story ever written. The tragic ending of the story is equally well known.
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Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. It is the story of two “star cross’d” lovers from conflicting families. The audience follow them as they fall in love and go to extreme lengths to be together. The story ends with the tragic death of the two lovers which brings together the two families in their grief.
This story’s ending differs from the typical traditional love story fairytale type ending along the lines of “….. and then, they all lived happily ever after. The End.” That type of ending leaves an audience feeling good at the end because it contains the feel good factor – a happy ending. It is the lack of this usual type of feel good factor in Romeo and Juliet which makes it necessary for Shakespeare to prepare his audience for the comparatively harsh ending of the story.
To prepare the audience for the tragic ending Shakespeare makes extensive use of the literary technique of foreshadowing in which he drops hints about the plot developments to come later in the play. By clever use of foreshadowing, Shakespeare is able to successfully manipulate the audience.
The overall structure of the plays an important part in preparing the audience for the tragic outcome.
Most people are aware of the notion that first impressions are important. Shakespeare takes advantage of this concept in presenting Romeo and Juliet to the audience. Shakespeare takes into consideration the strong impact of first impressions in constructing the structure the play. It is obvious that he carefully chose what order to put the events in and which bits to highlight, for maximum effect. Evidence of this can be seen in the key situations involving first impressions – the play’s introduction, the nature of the opening scene, Romeo’s first appearance and the lovers’ first meeting and conversation. In all of these, the sense of foreboding is always present.
At the beginning of the play, the audience are likely to be open minded because they are eager to watch the play. Due to this they are likely to be more impressionable at this stage than in later stages in the play. Romeo and Juliet opens with a prologue. The obvious purpose of the Prologue is to introduce the play to the audience. However, it also has a more significant and deeper function. The chorus is the most obvious example of dramatic irony in Romeo and Juliet -the whole play is watched by the audience whilst knowing the plot and the ending.
The Prologue sets the scene for the story and states the climax of its plot and whilst doing so gives away it’s ending. This starts the atmosphere of foreboding. In summary, the Prologue tells us that the stars control the lives of Romeo and Juliet, and that they are doomed to die because the stars are against them. The Prologue refers to an ill-fated couple using the metaphor “star-cross’d”, which literally means against the stars. This is very significant since at the time that the play was written, it was a common belief that the stars controlled people’s destinies. So the Prologue itself is responsible for creating this sense of fate by informing the audience so very early on that Romeo and Juliet will die – and this is done even before the play has begun! Consequently, the audience will then watch the play expecting the conditions set by the Prologue to be fulfilled. It seems that the fate from which Romeo and Juliet can’t escape is in fact the structure of the play itself.
To be exact, it has to be said that the Prologue is not foreshadowing since foreshadowing only hints at precise what will happen later on, whereas the Chorus in the Prologue actually tells outright what is to come rather than just hint at it. The second verse of the Chorus’ sonnet actually summarises the plot of the play:
“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lover’s take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife” (Prologue 5-8)
The fact that the next verse repeats the same message indicates that Shakespeare was determined to ensure that this message got impressed upon the audience very early on, in order to ensure that the foreshadowing which follows later on in the play would be heeded by them. So it is apparent that Shakespeare was intent on leading the audience to expect a tragic outcome right from the beginning.
Even though it starts off as a light comedy, the overall impression created by the opening scene is that of a hostile atmosphere created by violence and conflict.
The violent focus of the opening scene has a powerful visual impact on the audience.
Since the play is about a conflict between love and hate, by introducing the hate in the opening scene, Shakespeare highlights the hate which is going to be opposed to the love. This does not bode well for the love story which is to follow, which the audience are anticipating. This kind of a start is unlikely to lead to a happy and peaceful ending. It seems to suggest that similar unpleasant situations may follow. Furthermore, this introduction to violence and conflict so early on serves to ensure that the audience become accustomed to unpleasant situations. So, right from the start the audience is being familiarised with the concept of conflict or threat so that the seeds of the unhappy ending are being sown.
When Romeo makes his first appearance he comes across as a lovesick rejected lover who is depressed and wallowing in self pity. As he reflects on love and hate,
the oxymorons he uses to describe his feelings make him seem to be in love with the idea of being in love.
“Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,
O any thing of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.”
Shakespeare has put together contradictory words to convey the turmoil that love is causing Romeo. His reflection begins with two oxymorons, setting “brawling” versus “love”, and “loving” versus “hate”. He is portrayed as being a romantic dreamer and someone who is led by his feelings. We see a man who gets deeply affected by love. His use of language stresses the confusion in his mind and the fact that love has two sides. This has the effect of creating a sense of conflict around the subject of love – and this is before he even meets Juliet! Furthermore, it sets off a sense of foreboding around the subject of love.
The first impression created by the lovers meeting is that despite the sweetness of the encounter, the sense of foreboding continues to linger on. This is because even whilst the lovers are using the language of love and wooing each other, the atmosphere of foreboding is ever present because of the actual references to death that they both make during that period.
Another device which Shakespeare uses to prepare the audience for the tragic outcome is that he weaves an underlying thread of foreboding throughout the play. The various factors which contribute to the build up of the sense of foreboding in the play include the extensive use of dramatic irony, frequent and persistent references to fate and death, references to the darker side of love and the occurrences of violence and conflict.
In the following part of this essay I will detail the various methods which Shakespeare uses to successfully weave foreboding throughout the play.
Right at the start, the Chorus mentions a “pair of star-crossed lovers” (line 6) and thereafter there are repeated ominous hints that Romeo and Juliet are fated to die. Even before Romeo has met Juliet, as he is about to join Capulet’s party, he has a premonition:
“……my mind misgives
Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars,
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night’s revels and expire the term
Of a despised life, closed in my breast,
By some vile forfeit of untimely death” (1.4.106-11)
Shakespeare introduces a note of foreboding just as Romeo is about to meet Juliet for the first s time by hinting that he is going to develop into a tragic character. With the words of the Chorus still fresh in the minds of the audience, hearing these words from Romeo would remind them of the terms set by the prologue. Romeo’s words foreshadow what actually happens in the rest of the play. A chain of events does begin night, and that chain of events does lead to Romeo’s early death.
Just after they have met, each lover has a similar foreboding that this love will have a fated disastrous ending. When Benvolio says to Romeo; ” Away, be gone. The sport is at the best”, Romeo replies, “Ay, so I fear” (1.5.119-20), which reveals that he is worried that things can only get worse from now on. When Juliet realises that Romeo is a Montague (an enemy), she says;
“Prodigious birth of love it is to me
That I must love a loathed enemy” (1.5. 140-1))
The fact that she links this moment of meeting in terms of both birth and death does not bode well for the future of their love.
Referring to Romeo, Juliet says;
“If he be married. My grave is like to be my wedding bed (1.5. 135).
She is implying that if Romeo is married, she will be likely to die unmarried, because she will not marry anyone else. However, she is unknowingly foreshadowing her future, in which her grave does end up becoming her wedding bed. Her remark starts off the many associations of love and death in the play. So, from its very first appearance in the play, the love between Romeo and Juliet is portrayed as being doomed.
When Romeo goes to marry Juliet, he throws a challenge to fate;
” Do thou but close our hands with holy words.
Then love-devouring death do what he dare.” (2.6.6-7).
An Elizabethan audience would have considered this act of Romeo’s to be very ominous. They would have been likely to expect fate to rise to such a challenge and end up being the winner. Romeo’s words foreshadow what actually happens because “love-devouring death” arrives very soon after the wedding.
When Juliet shows concern for Romeo’s safety, Romeo assures her that it’s ok if her kinsmen find him, because his;
“life were better ended by their hate.
Then death prorogued wanting of thy love” ( 2.2.77-78).
Romeo means that he’d much rather have her love and die on the spot, than not have her love and die later. He does get her love, and that love leads to his death.
When Romeo leaps down from Juliet’s window and the lovers are exchanging their final farewells, Juliet has a premonition:
“Methinks I see thee, now thou art below,
As one dead in the bottom of a tomb.
Either my eyesight fails, or thou look’st pale” (3.5.55-57).
Sadly, Juliet is foreshadowing the fact that the next time she sees Romeo he will be dead in a tomb. Later on in the play, Romeo mentions a dream in which he;
“… dreamt my lady came and found me dead” (V.1.6).
This further builds upon the foreboding nature of Juliet’s vision.
Juliet pleads with her mother to help her avoid the marriage to Paris saying that if she won’t help her then she should,
“…..make the bridal bed
In that dim monument where Tybalt lies” (3.5.198-201)
Juliet’s implication that she would rather die than marry Paris foreshadows the fact that by the end of the play she will be sleeping with her husband “in that dim monument where Tybalt lies”.
Juliet then asks the Friar to help her to avoid marrying Paris. She says, the Friar could,
“……hide me nightly in a charnel-house,
O’er -cover’d quite with dead men’s rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls,
Or Bid me go into a new-made grave
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud,” (4.1.81-88)
Juliet’s description foreshadows the fact that she does hide in a charnel house, and Tybalt will be the “dead man in his shroud”.
It is not only Romeo and Juliet who foreshadow their own deaths – the words used by all around them also hint at their tragic ending.
At the feast, Tybalt makes a promise to himself that he will make Romeo pay for coming to the feast. He says;
” I will withdraw, but this intrusion shall
Now seeming sweet convert to bitter gall” (1.5.91-92).
The word “gall” can mean “an extremely bitter substance”, and it can also mean “poison”. This hints that Romeo’s sweet love for Juliet will lead to his death by poison.
The Friar reflects that there is some good in every plant and mineral, even if it is dangerous. However, there’s nothing so good;
“but, strain’d (wrenched) from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth (natural goodness), stumbling on abuse” (2.3.19-20)
“Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied and vice (is) sometimes by action dignified” (2.3.21-22).
The Friar thinks that the powers of nature need to be used carefully: there can be danger in too much of a good thing, and good can sometimes come out of something bad. The Friar’s words reflect the nature of many of the events which follow, for example, the love (a good thing) of Romeo and Juliet brings them death ( a bad thing), and their death (a bad thing) brings an end to the feud between the Montagues and Capulets ( a good thing).
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There is a certain type of recurring remark encouraging the audience to associate death with Juliet, which is particularly effective in building the sense of foreboding and darkening the atmosphere of the play. Over and over again Shakespeare introduces the idea that Juliet will be the bride of Death. I think that the most powerful personification in the play is the image of Death as Juliet’s husband-bridegroom. It recurs in different forms. Juliet herself first speaks like this the moment after she has first met Romeo:
” Go ask his name. – If he be married,
My grave is like to be my wedding bed” (1.5.134-5).
After hearing of Romeo’s banishment she looks at the ropes which he would have used to gain access to her room, and says:
He made you for a highway to my bed,
But I, a maid, die maiden-widowed.
Come, cords. Come, Nurse. I’ll to my wedding bed,
And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead. (111.1.134-7)
Her mother also encourages the audience to think in this way about Juliet. When Juliet refuses to marry Paris, an angry Lady Capulet remarks,
“I would the fool were married to her grave” (111.5.140),
Juliet’s father, Capulet, speaks in a similar way when he thinks Juliet is dead:
“Death is my son-in-law. Death is my heir.
My daughter he hath wedded. I will die
And leave him all. Life, living, all is death’s.” (1V.5.38-40)
When Romeo sees Juliet in the tomb, he thinks that Death loves her;
“….. Ah, dear Juliet,
Why art thou yet so fair? Shall I believe
That unsubstantial death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?” (V.3.101-5)
Remarks like these lead the audience to closely associate death with Juliet so that when she does finally die, they are not too badly affected. They also ensure that death is always in the back of the minds of the audience; they encourage us to expect it to be the result of the lovers’ affair and so impress on us the hopelessness of their situation.
Throughout the play, it is made very obvious that the lovers are doomed – the audience are led to believe that they do have to die. A horrible succession of coincidences destroys them. The events which contribute to the outcome of the lovers’ deaths, such as the feud between the two families, the series of accidents that spoil the Friar’s plans and the tragic timing of Romeo’s suicide and Juliet’s awakening, all seem to be the work of the cruel hands of fate. The audience are given the impression that circumstances are constantly arranged to work against them. If any one of the many coincidences had been different, then the tragedy would have been avoided. Romeo and Juliet are shown to be the victims of those circumstances. These coincidences have an important dramatic purpose: the fact that things keep going against the lovers creates the impression that an outside force of some sort is at work. The audience is repeatedly given the impression of fate as an outside force working against the lovers. They are often portrayed as not being responsible for their fates. This view is encouraged by Shakespeare throughout the play and it leads the audience to pity the lovers.
There are many suggestions in the play that the deaths were determined by fate. Throughout the play there are numerous references to the inevitability of the tragedy, for example “star-crossed” (Prologue, line 6), “the yoke of inauspicious stars” (V.3. 111). No matter how hard the lovers may try to overcome the obstacles in their way, the audience is left in no doubt that fate will win in the end.
Both Romeo and Juliet make references to an outside power which they believe is shaping their lives. They speak of themselves as the innocent victims of that power. After killing Tybalt, Romeo exclaims;
“O, I am fortune’s fool” (111.1.136
Then later he refers to himself as a “betossed soul” (V.3.76), suggesting that he feels like a helpless ship in a storm, being blown here and there by fate. And when Juliet learns that she must marry Paris she feels upset and exclaims;
” Alack, alack, that heaven should practise stratagems
Upon so soft a subject as myself!” (111.5.210-11).
She sees herself as a weak victim of the schemes of fate. On hearing the news of Juliet’s death, Romeo angrily cries;
” I defy you, stars” (V.1.24)
This indicates that he believes fate to be responsible for her death. As Romeo looks at the dead body of Paris, he thinks of the two of them as the victims of circumstances, both written;
“in sour misfortune’s book” (V.3.111-12)
The Friar, realising that his plan had failed, tells Juliet that there was nothing he could do against the fate which seems to have worked against the lovers:
“A greater power than we can contradict
Hath thwarted our intents” (V.3.153-4).
The frequent and persistent references to fate throughout the play collectively suggest that destiny will win in the end. They serve to create the impression that the lovers are at the mercy of fate.
Shakespeare portrays the love between Romeo and Juliet as being ideal. However, he doesn’t just show love as being ideal – he shows that love has a darker side too. The references to the darker side of love create an atmosphere of foreboding and remind the audience of the words of the Prologue.
When Romeo is in love with Rosaline and being moody, Benvolio teases him, saying:
“Why, Romeo, art thou mad?”
Here love is shown as a kind of madness.
The Friar thinks that Romeo should control his feelings and be less hasty and impetuous. He advises Romeo to be cautious:
“Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast” (11.3.90).
Furthermore, he warns Romeo against being too passionate:
“These violent delights have violent ends….
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume.” (11.6.9-11)
His words are tragically prophetic of the deaths of the lovers.
He tells Romeo:
“… love moderately, long love doth so,” (11.6.14-15)
Clearly, the lovers don’t follow his advice. Romeo is too passionate and rushes into whatever his feelings lead him to. He rushes into love with Juliet, rushes into marriage, he kills Tybalt without stopping to think, and after hearing of Juliet’s death he rushes back to Verona to kill himself. If he had slowed down, and thought about what he was doing, the deaths might have been avoided.
The romantic love of Romeo and Juliet leads to their deaths because they act without thinking of the consequences. And the result is that they die. To an Elizabethan audience it would have been plainer than to a modern audience that the lovers were wrong to marry in secret without the consent of their parents.
In a way even the feud is based on love. After the fight in Act 1, Romeo says:
“Here’s much to do with hate, but more to do with love.” (1.1.167)
The violence of the feud is caused by the love and loyalty the Montagues and Capulets feel for their families
The negative aspects of love show that love can be destructive and dangerous. This creates an air of foreboding.
The occurrences of violence and conflict in the play help the audience to become used to unpleasant situations. The many different forms of conflict in Romeo and Juliet include those between: Montague and Capulet, love and hate, the bridal bed and the grave
Shakespeare often uses antithesis to highlight the sense of conflict by using opposites. In this way the conflict is expressed in a more powerful way. For example, there are at least fifteen antitheses contained in Friar Lawrence’s first speech (11.3.1-30), as he reflects on the potential for good or evil in all living things ( “baleful weeds” versus “precious-juiced flowers”, “tomb” against “womb”, “Virtue” against “vice”, ……..). Another example of contrasting antitheses is the speech in which Capulet grieves for Juliet (1V.5, 84-90). He powerfully contrasts the happy preparations for the intended wedding with the mourning rites for her death. The first two lines set “festival” versus “funeral”:
“All things that we ordained festival,
Turn from their office to black funeral”
Sometimes Shakespeare uses a special kind of antithesis called an oxymoron in which two contradictory words are placed next to each other. For example, Shakespeare uses the oxymoron “sweet sorrow” in order to effectively express Juliet’s conflicting emotions when she and Romeo are about to part,
“Parting is such sweet sorrow”
The oxymoron “sweet sorrow” intensifies the conflict felt by Juliet at being sad to leave Romeo (“sorrow”) and yet excited (“sweet”) because she will be seeing him again. It allows a lot of information to be conveyed to the audience with a few words. It allows Juliet’s conflicting emotions to be conveyed to the audience in a very powerful way with just a few words.
After hearing of Tybalt’s death, Juliet strings together a list of oxymorons (111.2.75). Shakespeare uses the verbal conflict in these words of opposite meanings to very effectively reflect Juliet’s emotional conflict: she loves Romeo and yet is appalled at what he has done in killing Tybalt.
To express the confusion of her feeling’s, when Juliet’s fears that Romeo is dead, she puns on the pronoun “I”, the vowel “i , the eye and the word “ay”(111.2.45-50). Her lines very effectively convey that if Romeo is dead then she too stops existing as a person – as an “I.”
In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare makes skillful use of language to influence the audience. He uses vivid words and phrases to create imagery which helps to stimulate the audience’s imagination to stir up mental pictures which are emotionally charged. For example, Chorus uses powerful metaphors to suggest what will become of the lovers in referring to them as “star-crossed” and their love as being “death-marked”. Shakespeare also uses imagery to deepen the dramatic impact of particular moments or moods. All of Shakespeare’s imagery uses metaphor, simile or personification. Those which refer to death have a particularly powerful affect on the audience. This is because death is such a feared subject by everyone that its mention immediately has a strong impact. When I was watching the play, the personification which affected me in the most powerful way was that of the image of Death as Juliet’s husband-bridegroom.
The atmosphere of the play plays an important part in influencing the audience.
The general mood changes throughout the play, going from romantic to comic to violent to tragic.
Apart from letting the audience know that it’s a tragedy in the Prologue and thereafter frequently reminding them of that fact, the general mood is kept relatively light in the first two acts. However, Act 3 starts with violence and death and then from thereon the atmosphere gets bleak as the events accelerate towards tragedy. The bleak atmosphere helps to make the tragic event more acceptable because it prevents the tragedy from having a shocking effect on the audience.
One of the methods which Shakespeare uses to appropriately vary the atmosphere of the play is by using the scene settings to create certain moods. The settings of a scene help to give each scene the right type of atmosphere. The final scene is set at night in a graveyard and tomb. It’s a suitably gloomy and morbid setting for the tragic ending of the play and it helps the audience to anticipate and accept the tragedy.
Shakespeare also uses language to create atmosphere. For example, Juliet reflects on the conditions inside the tomb before she takes the potion;
“Where bloody Tybalt, yet but green in earth ,
Lies festering in his shroud, where, as they say,
At some hours in the night spirits resort” (4.3.42-44)
This death-fixated language and imagery very effectively creates a really spooky and morbid atmosphere which is very appropriate at that point in the play.
In Romeo and Juliet everything happens in one week between a Sunday and a Thursday. Since the coincidences happen within this very short time-frame, it gives the audience the impression that events are speeding towards tragedy. This makes the situation feel increasingly desperate which creates tension in the play. Events seem to happen in a rush, sweeping Romeo and Juliet along with them. The audience get drawn in by the terrible logic of how things go wrong and can’t help being swept along with them because there is a sort of morbid fascination in watching it happen. Due to the fact that every thing in the play seems to happen at great speed, I felt as though I was rushed along and the death of the lovers didn’t have as strong a sad impact on me as it would have had if the pace had been slower. I felt as though I wasn’t given enough time to feel bad.
In order to soften the impact on the audience of the plays tragic conclusion (so that they don’t end up feeling thoroughly depressed and/or traumatised), Shakespeare prepares the audience for the eventual outcome well before they arrive at that sad point. Throughout the play there are numerous references to the inevitability of the tragedy. From the very beginning of the play, throughout it, and right to the end, Shakespeare uses a variety of methods to make it blatantly obvious that his intent with this play is that of a tragedy and he uses a lot of dramatic irony to convey this. This is necessary to ensure that when the audience do eventually encounter the dreadful outcome, they don’t become overwhelmed, although they may be saddened. He ensures that by the end of the play the audience have come to terms with the fact that that the lovers will die – they were introduced to that concept from the start of the play, and thereafter frequently and persistently reminded of it. They are able to accept it and deal with it comfortably because they have been well prepared for it.
The fact that the play did not end with the deaths of Romeo and Juliet made the tragedy more acceptable to me. This is because their deaths were not in vain.
The Prince had tried to stop the feuding, but failed. The Friar hoped that the marriage of the lovers might unite the families, but his scheme went wrong. So, neither the Church (the Friar) nor the State (the Prince) were able to end the feud. But the love of Romeo and Juliet was able to end the feud. Their love was so great that it united their families. So, the play ends not with the deaths of Romeo and Juliet but with an end to the feud – as a result of their deaths. The deaths of Romeo and Juliet will bring peace to Verona.
I don’t think that I would have enjoyed the play if it had ended with the deaths. It would have been too negative. I like fact that the play ends on a positive note – that of love healing old wounds. It seems that the Friar was right – sometimes, something good can come out of something bad.
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