Scholars agree that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is “not only the greatest playwright but the greatest writer in history, not only in the English-speaking world but internationally” (Hurt: 1055). It is no wonder Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s earliest and famed plays, cannot be limited to its milieu; instead it has touched the lives of both readers and audience from generation to generation up to the present time.
The common themes that can be culled from Romeo and Juliet are: the forcefulness of love; love as a cause of violence; the individual versus society; and the inevitability of fate (http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/romeojuliet.html).
Not much has been written about the accountability and responsibility of parents and parent figures on the lives and doom of the youth particularly that of Romeo and Juliet.
Are the parents (Montagues and Capulets) responsible for their children’s tragic end? Are the surrogate parents (Friar Lawrence and the Nurse) accountable for their advice and consent? Are Romeo and Juliet mature enough to be left out on their own to deal with their own problems and struggles? These are just a few of the questions that need to be answered as we take a closer and deeper look at the parent angle of the play.
In the first place, it would be appropriate to look into the different characters who have played important roles in the sublime yet tragic story of the “star-crossed lovers,” Romeo and Juliet.
Romeo loves with such intense passion that he kills himself when he found Juliet lying seemingly lifeless. He is a complex character who is seen at the beginning as idealistic, immature and living by the book. He tends to re-enact the love poetry he reads, such that Juliet commented after their first kiss. “you kiss by th’ book,” (Act I, scene v). His love has grown from Rosaline (puppy love) to Juliet (mature). On the other hand, in almost all aspects of his life, Romeo lacks moderation: he loves at first sight; he enters the enemy’s camp just to see Juliet; he kills Tybalt out of revenge for his friend’s death; and commits suicide without first investigating. In the overall picture, he is “intelligent, quick-witted, fond of verbal jousting (particularly about sex), loyal, and unafraid of danger” (http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/romeojuliet.html).
Juliet, although only fourteen, shows a sense of maturity and naturalness that Romeo lacks. At the onset, she appears obedient, sheltered, naïve child. She seems to submit to the norms of the society to marry early as her mother suggested. In contrast to Romeo, who is fond of jesting about sex, she is not comfortable talking about sex (Act I, scene iii). In the same scene she is seen to be able to subdue the Nurse who cannot be subdued by her mother. Although she also falls in love with Romeo at first sight, her love is more mature, objective and logical. She also shows enough strength and courage to use the dagger to kill herself when she discovered Romeo dead.
It seems unnatural to have a devil’s advocate in the person of a priest. He is the one who helped Romeo and Juliet in fulfilling their plan of elopement and gave them good advice. Behind the scenes, he has his own personal motives why he helped the two. He thought that marrying Romeo and Juliet would partly end the civil strife in Verona. It was also the priest’s idea that a sleeping potion be used. It appears then, that the priest is instrumental in bringing about the tragic end of the lovers.
Interestingly, the Nurse is more than just a nanny to Juliet because she personally breast-fed Juliet when she was a baby and has cared for Juliet her entire life. She is partly the physical mother of Juliet in this sense. She is a vulgar, long-winded, and sentimental character who brings comic relief with her frequently inappropriate remarks and speeches. She also serves as Juliet’s faithful confidante and loyal go-between in Juliet’s affair with Romeo.
Capulet is the father of Juliet, husband of Lady Capulet, and enemy, for unexplained reasons, of Montague. He loves his daughter and thinks it wise for her to be married to Paris. He is prudent but also has the capacity for intense rage. The other parent is Lady Capulet, Juliet’s mother and Capulet’s wife, a woman who also married young and is eager to see her daughter marry Paris. She is an incompetent mother, relying on the Nurse for moral and practical support.
On the other hand, Montague is Romeo’s father and the mortal enemy of Capulet. He shows concern about Romeo’s melancholy. The mother of Romeo, Lady Montague dies of grief after Romeo is exiled from Verona.
Romeo and Juliet’s untimely end is partially brought about by the activities of the Nurse and Friar Laurence, yet their fathers created the enmity between their families in the first place. The differences between generations and their inevitable clash become central to both the Zeffirelli and the Lurhmann film versions.
At this juncture, the relationship of Romeo and Juliet with their true and surrogate parents can give light to the topic at hand.
Romeo’s relationship with his parents is characterized by formality and distance. They show concern for him but they are unable to know him better at a personal level. For instance, Montague is aware of his son’s melancholy but he did not reach out further to know it. On the other hand, Lady Montague shows weakness in the same way as not having touched her son’s life more intimately and suffering from her own depression that leads to her death.
Looking into Romeo’s relationship with the Friar, can lead us to believe that the priest has become the father figure Romeo was in search and need of. His advice has stood as words of encouragement and comfort that whatever the priest said became as valuable as truth. However, the priest is also trying to put his own agenda into the picture. He uses the situation and the youths’ vulnerability to his own advantage as a means of ending the strife in Verona. He even introduced the sleeping potion which later turned to be Romeo’s poison that led to his death. It appears inappropriate that the religious leader would orchestrate the marriage of two juveniles without their parents’ consent. This devil’s advocate of a priest is more accountable for the lovers’ death than any other.
Juliet’s relationship with her parents is seen in the same light as Romeo. Both parents love their daughter but they were unable to touch her life in a more personal way. They wished for her happiness and they thought giving her a good husband like Paris would make it possible. Juliet’s mother can be understood for her incompetence as a mother for she gave birth to Juliet at a tender age of fourteen, so young to be burdened with motherhood. She has no other basis for advice to Juliet but her own personal experience.
On Juliet’s relationship with the Nurse, it is but natural for Juliet to be more intimate with the woman who breastfed her. The Nurse’s role in Juliet’s life replaced the position of Juliet’s physical mother. It would then become expected that Juliet would confide more and trust the person who has been with her most of the time.
In conclusion, four centuries have not diminished the relevance of this tragic and brilliantly worded story, in which the examples of two feuding families drive home a fatal point. Zeffirelli and Luhrmann’s film versions have both maintained the original language of the play but changed the setting and other elements. Both also focused on the differences between generations and their inevitable clash.
However, looking deeper into the play and into the roles of the parent figures in the story can bring about another angle worth thinking, reflecting and writing about.
What brought the tragic end to the lovers is not merely misunderstanding between generations but the indifference of the real parents and the carelessness and self-interest of the surrogate parents that misled the youth and made them become the willing victims.
In this case, it is not only the intense passion of the youth and the war between the clans that are to be blamed. It is also the irresponsibility of the trusted elders to whom the youth run to for advice that should be considered most fatal.
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Hurt, James. Literature: A Contemporary Introduction. New York: Macmillan College Publishing. 1994. Mignola, Scott G. Movie Review: Romeo and Juliet. (03 August 2008)
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