'Romeo and Juliet' - an Aristotelian Tragedy of Youth and Love

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According to Aristotle (335BC), an essential element in the ‘good or fine’ character of every great tragic hero is ‘hamartia’, the fatal flaw. The tragic hero’s fatal flaws inevitably lead to negative consequences in his life. The character of Romeo, the tragic hero[1] of William Shakespeare’s cautionary tragedy Romeo and Juliet, contains three key fatal flaws that condemn him and others to death. Through employing the dramatic techniques of meaningful dialogue, soliloquy, narrative structure, and characterisation, Shakespeare privileges that Romeo’s flaws of irresponsibility, rashness and waywardness were stereotypical of upper-class youth[2] during the Renaissance[3].

Romeo’s fatal flaw of irresponsibility is foregrounded throughout the play as he repeatedly relies on fate. By obliviously relying on chance when he is ‘in love’ and then blaming fate when he meets conflict, Romeo shirks off responsibility for his own actions and decisions (Shakespeare, 1597, I.i.160). By gate-crashing Capulet’s banquet, where ‘’tis no wit to go’ as a Montague, he recklessly lends himself to chance (I.iv.50). Indirectly, this risk taken by Romeo is the cause of Tybalt’s and Mercutio’s death. After irrationally mourning for Mercutio and murdering Tybalt, Romeo then dubs himself ‘fortune’s fool’ (III.i.132), blaming ‘[t]his day’s black fate’ (III.i.114) for his predicament. Through this event, Shakespeare conveys a cautionary warning to the audience by inviting that Romeo’s irresponsibility in love results in the downfall of Romeo, Mercutio and Tybalt.

When in love, Romeo also possesses the character of rashness. It is a common element in tragedies for the tragic hero to hastily disregard repeated forebodings and warnings of doom, and that this would contribute to his eventual downfall in the play (Aristotle, 335BC). In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo receives countless premonitions and omens from ‘the stars’ hanging above foreshadowing the lovers’ approaching doom (I.iv.113). Yet, the hero does not appear to take these to heart when in the face of love. Just before attending Capulet’s banquet, Romeo reflects, ‘I fear…/ Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars…/ With this night’s revels’ (I.iv.112-115). Nonetheless, he immediately decides, ‘Let come what may, once more I will behold/ My Juliet’s eyes!.../ In our hearts dwell love and endless peace’ (i.iv.121). It is almost as if Romeo’s rational judgement is ‘hoodwinked’ by Cupid’s bow (I.iv.4). In Act Three, both Romeo and Juliet perceive the other as ‘one dead in the bottom of a tomb’ (III.v.56) and ‘pale’ (III.v.57). Romeo even further comments, ‘Dry sorrow drinks our blood’ (III.v.59). Shakespeare couples this dialogue with Romeo’s premonition in Mantua – ‘I dreamt that my lady came and found me dead’– to convey an obvious sense of foreshadowing and foreboding doom to the audience, as it was a commonly thought in the Renaissance that dreams actually came true (V.i.5). Nonetheless, Romeo obliviously pursues his deepening relationship with Juliet. For the rest of the play, he gives no contemplation to the ‘ill-divining’ warnings (III.v.54). Indeed, the ‘misadventured piteous overthrows’ (I.Prologue.7) of the lovers and those around them did come true in the end, even when Romeo attempts to ‘defy you, stars’ (V.i.25). Shakespeare almost forces the audience to believe that Romeo’s obliviousness to the omens he encounters along the ‘fearful passage of their death-marked love’ may have caused their death (I.Prologue.9). Through this privileged belief, Shakespeare cautions the audience about the flaw of rashness.

Another way through which Shakespeare depicts Romeo as impulsive and rash is manipulating the play’s narrative structure, particularly plot development and the outcomes of Romeo’s impetuous decisions. Shakespeare’s primary source when writing Romeo and Juliet was Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem, Romeus and Juliet. Instead of consolidating his relationship with...
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