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The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is
one that is still relevant today, both in its original form and in contemporary
reproductions. It has been argued as an inevitable injustice and a ‘paradox …
in which the compulsion to love is a compulsion to die, and death is the price
for an absolute’ (Levenson, 2008: 3). The cause cannot be stated easily and
placed on one villain, rather the accumulation of social expectations interwoven
with conflict, lead to the tragic, yet possible necessity, of Romeo and Juliet’s
death. The ‘ancient grudge’ is a crucial theme that runs through the play (Prologue.
3). Although the reason has not been established, it is evident that the feuds
historical customs, through generations, have been cemented in the characters
thoughts, responses and actions, impacting on the imminent tragedy. As Levenson
states ‘even the peacemaking Benvolio fights Tybalt as if by reflex’ (2008:
31). Although subtle in some characters, the feud is particularly apparent in Mercutio
and Tybalt. It could be argued that Tybalt is the personification of conflict; Shakespeare
uses images of hell to surround his character as he powerfully remarks ‘What,
drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word/ As I hate hell, all Montagues, and
thee’ (1.1.66-67). Through the use of rhetoric, the audience is reminded that
with the existence of the feud between both houses peace cannot exist and with the
connotations of death and hate Tybalt’s character is a symbol of this. Shakespeare
successfully creates characters with depth, when exploring the onomatology of a
character’s name; we can see they are either representative of their personality
or used ironically. Tybalt’s name is associated with the Prince of Cats,
implying that he acts with sly, cunning and self-serving motives. The
association adds to our perception of his character and is reinforced when he
seeks conflict, setting in motion a continuation of murder and death. It is in
the moment of Mercutio and Tybalt’s death that the peripeteia is formed,
the feud becomes a reality, and the symbolic and thematic shift foreshadows
further tragedy. The comical language of puns is overthrown by revenge, and
with Romeo’s banishment we are given the insight that the love between him and
Juliet is doomed. Mercutio, a loyal friend to Romeo, incites conflict and
female degradation through torment, both with Tybalt and his sexualisation of
the nurse. The origins of his name represent a character that is volatile and
unpredictable. His actions reflect his name, as he ‘is the leader of a high
social status who takes the greatest risks’ resulting in his own death
(Levenson, 2008: 23). In Juliet we see the greatest evolution of a character in
the play, as she initially portrays the ideal female in a patriarchal
environment. However, over time she develops a sense of independence and
individuality, shown in Act Four, Scene Three as she is about to take the
potion in which she quotes ‘My dismal scene I needs must act alone’ (4.3.19).
In this scene we see the rapid shift from youthful, adolescence to a brave and
lonely maturity. She is a victim of the feud that surrounds her, and as a result
she acts in isolation. Romeo is not immune to the fatal consequences of the
conflict.

Part Two (AC 2.2, 4.1, 4.2): Language, Dramatic
Conventions (iambic pentameter, soliloquy/asides, sonnet, rhyme) and Literary
Techniques

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We may see Romeo and Juliet as a
cliché, with a sentiment that has been both over used and exploited through
time, however when we explore Shakespeare’s language, the considered and
purposeful use of dramatic conventions, we can see that there is a larger concept
then that of love and death. The use of wordplay to ignite dramatic effect is
particularly evident in Juliet’s soliloquy in Act Four, Scene Three. Here,
Shakespeare’s use of multivalent language is ‘over-loaded and astonishingly
rapid, giving the impression of a gushing torrent of connotation and
association’, when we delve in to the words of the soliloquy we can see they
embody the representation of tragedy (Palfrey, 2011: 20). It can be recognised
that the use of a soliloquy is significant in itself, ‘for it is, at its very
roots, a rhetorical activity’, reinforcing a strong emphasis on the
hypothetical throughout (Palfrey, 2011: 254). This is evident in Juliet’s
continuous use of rhetorical questioning: ‘And there die strangled ere my Romeo
comes?’ the repeated technique echoes both the state of her isolation and the
fragility of her mind (4.3.34). This too, reflects the audience’s instinctive
response to question the course of the tragedy, if only the patriarchal
expectations of arranged marriage and the destructive preoccupation of the feud
did not cause the barrier in communication between Juliet and her father, and
consequently her death. The powerful image of fear, death and desperation is
immediate when analysing the verse. The repetition of ‘fear’, ‘vault’, ‘bones’
and ‘shroud’ resonate the foreshadowing of death and symbolise the place of
rest (4.3.27-52). Shakespeare’s continuation of repetition is an intriguing representation
of the dominance and power that the masculine figure has over Juliet. Evident
in the repeated use of both ‘Romeo’ and ‘Tybalt’, they have a significant
presence in the soliloquy; despite their lack of literal presence, they still
dominate the entire text. Upon seeing her ‘cousin’s ghost’ we get an insight in
to the manifestations of Juliet’s mind (4.3.54). She describes Tybalt as
‘bloody … yet but green in earth’, the colour symbolism and the juxtaposing
term connotes the strong contrast between sanguinary, and death against rebirth
and growth (4.3.41). Showing her guilt that the death of one man she loved was
caused by the one she is hoping to start life with. The main concept of
Juliet’s fears are that of waking too early, stuck in a sealed vault with the
dead before Romeo comes to rescue her, which we know to be ironic as she wakes
too late. The use of anthropomorphism gives power to the ‘vault’ as it is
compared to that of a living entity that can consume her, as she states ‘Shall
I not then be stifled in the vault/ To whose foul mouth no healthsome air
breathes in’, while the antithesis of ‘foul’ and ‘healthsome’ heighten the
conflict in Juliet’s mind (4.3.32-33). The definition can be further analysed,
as the ambiguous metaphor can be argued as a representation of patriarchal
oppression. The ‘vault’ signifies male authority, and to be ‘stifled’ by it
illuminates Juliet’s conflicting position (4.3.32-33). Shakespeare illustrates sociolinguistics
consistently throughout the play. Juliet’s soliloquy is formed using blank
verse, lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter. The use of rhythm and metaphorical imagery
reflect Juliet’s high social status, and her level of education. This level of
superiority is compounded when compared to the contrasting use of unembellished
prose we see in the servants’ speech. The excessive use of punctuation captures
the anxiety that runs through the text, while the dismissal of rhyme gives the
moment dignity and seriousness. The scene ends with the stage direction ‘she
falls upon her bed within the curtains’; on stage this would have produced a
dramatic ending to a dramatic scene (4.3.58). It would provide the audience with
‘a visual foreshadowing that would result if the tomb were located in the space
occupied by the bed’ (Levenson, 2008: 316).

 

Part Three (AC 1.1, 3.1): Themes, Socio-Cultural/
Historical Aspects and Setting/ Context

The major theme that impacts on the
tragic fate of Romeo and Juliet is that of conflict, as ‘the love that Juliet
shares with Romeo is a threat to the patriarchal system of family and state’ (Levenson,
2008: 40). During Elizabethan times the hierarchy of men was a social norm and
Capulet is the microcosm of masculine power at the head of the family. When
this is challenged we are presented with his brutality, through degrading
language and threats to dismiss Juliet from the family entirely. He remarks ‘Hang
thee, young baggage, disobedient wretch!’ the repetition of ‘baggage’ within
the scene amplify the ownership Capulet feels he has over his daughter, as he
compares her to an inanimate object with connotations of being a burden (3.5.159).
Within this act there is no understanding in the alternating sides of dialogue,
Capulet dominates the discussion, and there is ‘a silent chasm bespeaking
absolute discommunication’ (Palfrey, 2011: 136). Juliet’s position would not be
so desperate without patriarchal influence, which lies in the ‘notions of
woman’s inferior place’ (Keeble, 2004: 116). This is compounded by the use and
repetition of phallic imagery. Juliet refers to ‘a fearful point’ and the
‘dagger’, to place ‘fearful’ in direct correlation to the phallic imagery the
power of patriarchy is reinforced (4.3.22-31). The torment surrounding Juliet’s
decision to question her initial female role, one that is simply expected from
social conditioning, again, ignites the reader with her fear of doing so. The
patriarchal conventions, however, are reinstated as ‘Juliet’s insubordination
is punished … Juliet does not get away with her rebellion’ (Keeble, 2004:
116).

Prince Escalus represents the
authority and power Verona has over its people. He attempts to enforce the principles
of regulation and law, which society dictates will naturally evolve and change
over time, to control the feuding houses that live by traditional values. In
the sixteenth century violence was a common feature of life, ‘civil disorder
erupted in town and countryside until the turn of the century’ and when Queen
Elizabeth enforced policies to reduce this, the result was not entirely
effective as ‘street outbreaks persisted and the number of recorded duels …
jumped’ (Palfrey, 2011: 35). Shakespeare’s characterisation of the Prince as an
ineffective enforcer of the law, coupled with public duelling, almost directly
reflects the political standing during Elizabethan time and society’s rebellion
against it.

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