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A tragic hero or heroine is someone who has great potential. Unfortunately, due to poor judgment and ill-considered choices, fate or misfortune, this person, in this instance Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, never reaches her potential or meets expectations.
Juliet has no idea, when she first sees Romeo, that he is a Montague. As a young woman of noble birth, Juliet is expected to make an appropriate marriage but was sure that she has no interest in marriage when her mother recently spoke of Paris; confirming in Act I, scene iii, that, "It is an honor that I dream not of," (67), Juliet is now unsettled. She is devastated at the news that Romeo is a Montague and remarks that, "My only love sprung from my only hate," (I.v.136). The audience is forewarned of the potential for disaster by Juliet's paradoxical mention of such strong and opposing emotions, love and hate, in the same sentence.
Shakespeare is developing his tragic heroine who will, after this chance meeting, continue to act impulsively and not rationally. Neither Juliet, nor Romeo, has any part in the conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues and they, therefore, cannot hope to resolve the issues or end the feud. They also, foolishly, have no concern, at this stage, for what their actions may lead to. They are, after all, "star-crossed" lovers, suggesting that this may be their destiny. However, they are in a position to make better decisions and control their futures more effectively.
Juliet will make a very poor decision when she elects to ignore the fact that Romeo is a Montague. She contemplates, in Act II, scene ii, "What's in a name..." (43). Her misguided conclusion that Romeo's name is "no part of thee," (47) confirms her lack of good judgment and allows the audience to sympathize with her predicament as she makes her decision based on her feelings and is not guided by her duty as a Capulet.
As momentum builds, the audience is overwhelmed by the misfortune but, just when it appears as if all is not lost, utter tragedy strikes and the lovers' demise is far worse than they deserve: banishment, a nunnery, perhaps, but needless death?
The picture is complete. Juliet has met all the criteria for a tragic heroine:
- She is of noble birth.
- She makes an error of judgment in choosing to recognize the extent of the hatred between the two families.
- She has the opportunity, more than once, to change her decision.
- The audience can relate to her overwhelming and irrational feelings and therefore feels extremely sorry for her.
- Death is so extreme and certainly, despite their foolishness, the lovers do not deserve such a tragic end.
- Her death may not have been in vain as the families will end their feud.
Juliet suffers a tragic misfortune similar to the one Romeo undergoes, and can be developed as a tragic heroine. Although the daughter of a rich and powerful family, she suffers a series of losses and diffuculties, ending in her death. Juliet loses her cousin, Romeo is banished for his murder, and then Juliet’s parents try to force her to marry Paris. When she attempts to avoid the marriage by faking her own death, she awakes to find Romeo dead, and then commits suicide in despair.
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