Why William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" had to die

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2013 22 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1 The play
1.2. Shakespeare’s religious background
1.3. Shakespearean Tragedy

2. Fate

3. Religion

4. Immature Love

5. Coming of Age

6. The feud, its initiators and the effects of a patriarchal society

7. Conclusion

8. Cinematic Realization
8.1 West Side Story
8.2 Romeo + Juliet

1. Introduction

“And they all lived happily ever after” – This might have been the last sentence of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet every other night back in the 18th century. We cannot be sure how theatre companies went about the happy ending of the so “[…] called greatest love story ever told” (Davies, 2001, p. 397) but scholars state that the plays blending of comedic and tragic elements has sometimes encouraged theatres to let their love couple live (cf. Smith, 2012, p. 158; McAllindon, 1991, p. 60).

This raises the question why Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had to die, which can be answered in several ways. The paper is going to explore three different reasons: the (seemingly) inevitable fate of the “star-crossed lovers” (Prologue, 6), the danger of immature love and the feud with its consequences for society, family, and coming of age. Ultimately the paper will try to find out what Shakespeare might have wanted to tell his audience and how his messages are conveyed by recent film adaptations.

First of all, it will be looked at the play’s history, the societal environment during its emergence and Shakespeare’s religious background which are of utmost importance to interpret the author’s ideas. Afterwards all three previously mentioned reasons for the couple’s death will be illustrated and analyzed. In conclusion the paper is going to argue that the play is an example of a man-made tragedy which had to end badly in order to open the audience’s eyes to the goings-on around them. Finally two film adaptations will be looked at in some detail, mainly concentrating on their endings and their justification for it

1.1 The play

The first version of “The most excellent and lamentable tragedy of Romeo and Juliet” was released between 1594 and 1597 when Shakespeare was about 30 years old (cf. Dunton-Dower & Riding, 2004, p. 305; Davies, 2001, p. 397). The cover of the second Quarto from 1599 suggests that the play was performed frequently and that it was much appreciated by the audience (cf. Levenson, 2000, p. 135; Davies, 2001, p. 397). The storyline was not new to the world and originates in a poem by Arthur Brooke: The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (cf. Davies, 2001, p. 397; Smith, 2012, p. 157) . Arthur Brook is said to have “[…] used a moralistic French adaption, by Pierre Boaistuau, of a story by the Italian Matteo Bandello in his Le novella di Bandello, and Shakespeare probably also read William Painter’s translation of Boaistuau in his Place of Pleasure, of 1567” (Wells, 1996, p. 1). The existing stories are believed to have influenced Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet severely.

1.2 Shakespeare’s religious background

The topic of Religion has long been denied any importance for Shakespeare’s plays. Only in recent years have scholars come to the conclusion that Religion was a powerful cultural structure of the sixteenth century and did probably affect the author to some extent. Scholars are not entirely sure what Shakespeare believed in and whether he felt home in the Catholic Church or the Reformation (cf. Cummings, 2012, pp. 663-664).

Shakespeare lived in a time of radical change probably between 1564 and 1616 (cf. Wells, 2001, p. 419). Henry the VIII’s break with the Catholic Church (1534) and Queen Elizabeth’s conformity with the protestant belief indicated a formal religious union in society which was not really practiced by the common people. Religion was a big part of everday public and family life (cf. Cummings, 2012, pp. 664-665).

Shakespeare was baptized on the 26. of April in 1564, probobaly only some days after being born, in Holy Trinty church in Stratford-upon-Avon (cf. Wells, 2001, p. 419). Young Shakespeare went to chruch with his parents and got to know the Bible, more precisely the Genevan and Bishops’ edition, the Book of Common Prayers, and the Homilies. Relying on concrete matters of fact like Shakespeare’s baptism, his marriage and his last will scholars assume that he was a lifelong member of the Anglican Chruch. Throughout his plays he treated members of almost every religion with generosity (cf. Cummings, 2012, pp. 663-664). Until new findings suggest something different most scholars will continue to assume that Shakespeare was “[…] Christian, tolerant, [and] humane” (Sohmer, 2001, p. 374).

1.3 Shakespearean Tragedy

Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet during a time when most of his other plays were of comedic character. The seemingly predetermined tragic ending of his play is considerably confronted with an unforeseeable comedic opposite (cf. Smith, 2012, p. 159). In his day Shakespeare was on the one hand side influenced by classic tragedies but also by the writings of his contemporaries. He never appeared to follow the rules of writing a tragedy too closely and did not always see the need for a rigorous entity of time, place, and action. Rather than pressing his story into an existing frame of style he wanted to frame his story by using classical elements. Scholars also say that Shakespeare put more emphasize on his characters and their action rather than on godly fate. Many times he reduces an intervention of God or other spirits to their presence. The tragedies are interpreted as the authors way of dealing with the confusing and changing ideological and also political circumstances of his time (cf. Massai, 2001, p. 481).

Bringing Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare’s wish of writing a tragedy together one might suggest that solely that wish could be a reason for the play’s ending. In order to answer this question it would be crucial to know wether Shakespeare wrote the prologue prior to coming up with an ending for his play or whether he added the prologue after finishing it.

2. Fate

The ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ defines ‘fate’ as a “[…] development of events outside a person’s control [which is] regarded as predetermined by a supernatural power” (Oxford Dictionaries)[1]. The Merriam-Webster defintion of ‘fate’ adds a level of causation to the meaning of the word (Merriam-Webster Encyclopaedia)[2]. All in all ‘fate’ is regarded as a phenomenon of occurring circumstances which lead to either a happy or bad ending of something or soemeone. The word originates from the latin word ‘fatum’ which can be translated as “something that has been spoken” (Merriam-Webster Encyclopaedia).

This definition of fate can also be employed for Romeo and Juliet. The play starts with a prologue in which a chorus informs the audience about the fate of the young lovers. It stresses their family history and the situation around them and prophesies their deaths which are supposed to be confirmed by fate (Prologue, 1-14). The proloque also suggests that the couple can not do anything to change their destiny and that they are facing an unlucky future wich later on culminates in their suicide.

With the prologue Shakespeare foretells the ending of his play. By doing so the audience’s attention is primarily focused on the question how the lovers will come to a tragic end and the question of what really is going to happen throughout the play fades into the background (cf. Davis, 1996, p. 57). Shakespeare made sure that everyone can get the impression that fate is meddling with the protaganist’s life and he encourages the audience to blame the stars and supplys a scapegoat.

There are many incidents in the play were fate plays an important role and the characters seem to know what their end will be. Examples are Romeo’s recurring dreams and the bad omens Juliet sees (cf. Dunton-Dower & Riding, 2004, p. 305). Even before Romeo gets to know Juliet he says:

I fear to early, for my mind misgives Some early 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. 104-109).

With these words Romeo utters a presentiment of danger which goes hand in hand with the prologue’s announcements. He indicates that destiny will start to take its course that night and that it will bring along bad consequences for him. Soon after that Juliet talks about a similar feeling. After meeting Romeo for the very first time and not knowing who he is Juliet fears that he might be already taken and says: ”If he be married, My grave is like to be my wedding-bed” (1.4.248-249). Although Romeo is not married both of them will spend their marriage in grave.

The fighting scene between Mercutio and Tybalt and later on between Tybalt and Romeo contains many references to fate. When Mercutio dies, Romeo seems to know that his friend’s death is only the first incident in a sequence of bad happenings that are to come and says: “This day’s black fate on more days doth depend: This but begins the woe others must end” (3.1.121-2). On the one hand side he knows that he will have to revenge his friend’s death when he gets the chance but on the other hand side he can also be sure that his doing so can only lead to more sorrow. When he finally kills Tybalt he calls himself “[…] a fortune’s fool” (3.1.138) and therefore seemingly blames the heavens for letting this happen and making him kill Juliet’s cousin. Still the sentence contains a contradiction since Romeo himself killed Tybalt, with his own hands. Maybe the death of Mercutio can be called bad luck but here Romeo killed Tybalt on purpose, being obliged to his friend and enraged about his death.

After Tybalt’s death and the Prince’s sentence the couple spends their wedding night together but afterwards say farewell to each other. Looking down on him from her window Juliet has the impression that she sees Romeo as if he was lying in a grave all pale (3.5.55-6). His sentiment is the same. Juliet hopes that their fortune may be changeable and will bring Romeo back to her saying: “O Fortune, Fortune! All men call thee fickle; If thou art fickle, what dost thou with him That is renown’d for faith? Be fickle, Fortune, For then I hope thou wilt not keep him long, But send him back” (3.5.60-4). Throughout the play and the character’s utterances one cannot be sure whether fate is really judged as something which can not be changed and is already decided upon or whether fate is as Juliet calls it ‘fickle’ and every other circumstance might change the outcome.

In Mantua Romeo thinks that his dreams predict some good news and he seems to be full of hope for a happy ending (5.1.2). When he hears about Juliet’s death all his hopes are shattered and he starts to hate the stars and their way of meddling with his life (5.1.24). Here the text suggests that Romeo blames the stars and therefore fate for killing Juliet.

The play also contains many chances which can easily be appointed as agents of fate (cf. Schmiele, 1963, p. 108). Romeo was at the wrong time, in the wrong place when Mercutio is killed and Tybalt threatens his life. It is bad luck that the plaque holds Friar John back and the letter does never reach Romeo. It is bad luck that Juliet wakes just some minutes too late. Next to that there are many incidents and circumstances in the play which could not have been influenced by neither Romeo nor Juliet which would also coincide with a definition of fate but in the end both protagonists do have the chance to change their destiny. Romeo could have mourned about Juliet but stayed in Mantua. He could have started all over and Juliet could have done the same after finding out that Romeo killed himself. Maybe they have gotten into that position because of some fateful circumstances but Romeo did not fall off his horse and broke his neck on his way to Verona. Juliet did not accidentally drink real poison instead of a sleeping potion and she also did not accidentally stab herself. Both of them were in control of their lives when they decided to kill themselves. Fate might be a well chosen scapegoat to justify Romeo and Juliets deaths but overall the text suggests that it is not the reason why the play had to end badly. One can rather say that through the many references to fate, Shakespeare wished to create a feeling of inevitability, of a mysterious force stronger than individuals shaping their courses even against their will and culminating in the lovers’ deaths, […] the play employs fate not as an external power, but as a subjective feeling on the parts of the two lovers (Kahn, 1977, p. 17).

3. Religion

Throughout the play the church, personified by Friar Laurence, plays an important role. The Friar, as Romeo and Juliet’s trustee, and their religion is a common ground for both protagonists. Despite the feud of their families both are connected to the same priest and seem to have all liberties to confide in him (cf. Snyder, 1996, p. 93). Friar Laurence marries the couple, knowing that their families are enemies to each other but hoping that an act of pure love might change their relationship and the goings-on in Verona to the better (2.2.92). It is also the Friar who comes up with a plan to save Juliet but fails to correctly put it into practise. The question this section will try to answer would be why Shakespeare decided to involve the holy man that much and what he wanted to tell us by letting his plans fail.

“Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast” (2.2.94). With this sentence Friar Laurence tries to convince Romeo to be patient and moderate. He hopes that the heavens will help them to succeed with their plan and describes the act of marriage as holy (2.5.1-3). He also thinks that love that is pursued violently will also end violently and will “[…] in [its] triumph end like fire and powder […]” (2.5.10). The Friar is portrayed as a wise old man who is torn between the wish of helping Romeo and Juliet to be together while trying to guide their relationship into the right direction and the need to keep it a secret until society is ready for them to be together.

After Romeo’s banishment it is the Friar who keeps both lovers on the right track. Like Juliet also Romeo thinks that being banished is even worse than being dead. Everything outside of Verona seems hell to him because Juliet will not be there. He asks the Friar for a knife or some poison so that he can kill himself (3.3.44). The Friar thinks Romeo has gone mad and calls his plan to kill himself a deadly sin (3.3.109-110).

When Friar Laurence hears that Friar John was not able to deliver the letter to Romeo he tries to set his plan right and goes to Juliet’s monument. He wants to wait for her to wake up and when she finally does he wants her to come with him (5.2). He wants her to go into a nunnery and endure her life as a widow. It is debatable why Friar Laurence advises Juliet to fake her death in the first place and does not take her into a nunnery right away. There she could have waited until everyone would have thought that she had run away forever. But given the society in which Shakespeare and his characters lived this would have been a sin too. Juliet would have greatly disobeyed her parents and everyone would have known. Although the Friar acts very modern when he allows Romeo and Juliet to decide whom they want to marry on their own, he does not seem to be ready to undermine the conditions of their patriarchal society one bit further which does also explain why he left Juliet in the tomb. Helping Juliet to flee might have harmed her family and would not have stayed between the protagonists only.[3] Still the text does not suggest that Shakespeare let his love couple die in order to show the evilness of the church or to make people separate themselves from it.


[1] http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/fate

[2] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fate

[3] To the end of the play Juliet does get the chance to leave her family forever but she does not take it. Her father tells her that she should leave his house when she does not want to marry Paris but Juliet knows that she would bring discredit to her family, which she loves too, by doing so. Although she secretly marries Romeo she does not want to leave her family dishonorably. Getting married is an act of pure love but running away would be an act of pure badness (3.5).


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Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald – Anglistik/Amerikanistik
william shakespeare romeo juliet




Title: Why William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" had to die