In what way is Romeo and Juliet an Aristotelian tragedy?

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litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Romeo and Juliet is an Aristotelian tragedy because the action revolves around the story, not the characters.  In other words, they are more or less at the mercy of the story rather than making their own choices.  We see this in the very beginning of the way.  Shakespeare lets us know, so there can be no mistake.  He tells us that Romeo and Juliet are “star-cross'd,” so we know that they were fated to be together.  However, their families also hate each other, so they are fated to heartache and tragedy.

Aristotle wrote in Poetics that a real tragedy was all-encompassing, larger than life, and incredibly dramatic.  In this play, we have two families that, for reasons no one can really remember, hate each other so much that their servants can’t even pass each other in the streets without a bloodbath threatening to break out.

All six elements of Aristotle’s tragedy are present in this play.  They are plot, character, thought, diction, melody and spectacle.

The plot of the play is definitely engaging, and there are thoughtful and well-rounded characters.  A young guy and a young girl fall in love at a ball.  Their families hate each other, so naturally they want to secretly get married.  Unfortunately, Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin Tybalt by accident after Tybalt kills his friend Mercutio during an innocent marketplace brawl.  Although Prince Escalus threatened anyone caught brawling in public with execution, he takes pity on Romeo because of his good reputation and banishes him instead.  Still, Juliet does not take the news well, since she wanted to spend the rest of her life with young Romeo there in Verona.

Tybalt is dead, and Romeo--banished;'
That 'banished,' that one word 'banished,'
Hath slain ten thousand Tybalts.  (Act 3, Scene 2)

Things get really messy when the young lovers go to Friar Lawrence for help, and he gives them a potion to make Juliet seem dead.  Romeo finds her, kills himself, and she wakes up and actually kills herself.  Their grieving parents realize what fools they’ve been and end the feud.

Thought is usually described as thoughtful themes, or meaning behind the play.  There are universal issues of revenge, love, friendship, and the struggle to overcome where you came from to make something of yourself on your own.  Passion in all its forms (love, anger, lust, happiness, boldness, violence, courage) battles calm.  It is what gives the play its timelessness and its meaning.

Diction refers to the action lines in the play, and how the language is used.  This is a very poetic play.  Much of it is written in sonnets and verse, and is beautiful. 

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! (Act 1, Scene 5)

When Romeo and Juliet first meet, they share their love with each other through their words.  Their conversation is not a conversation at all—it is poetry.  What could be more romantic?  Throughout the play, as characters fight, argue, and even die, they speak poetry to each other.  The play is poetry in motion.

Melody refers to music, so of course there is a ball!  Spectacle literally means how you see (spec) the play, or put it on.  It is the staging of the play, which is the blocking and choreographing of it.  Some of this is produced through stage directions, of course.  For instance, you can see the directing here of one of the most famous scenes from the play.

SCENE II. Capulet's orchard.



He jests at scars that never felt a wound.

JULIET appears above at a window

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. (Act 2, Scene 2)

All of the information the director and actors need is here.  We know that Juliet is offstage behind a window when the action begins, and Romeo enters, says his line to Benvolio (referring to the end of the last scene), and then sees Juliet.  She does not hear or see him yet because she is at the window.  He sees her and stops, and is mesmerized by her beauty by the light of the window.  He compares her to the sun.  He keeps speaking while she does not hear him, and then she speaks but does not know he is there.  Eventually, they converse.  It’s beautiful and touching and you can see why it’s such a beloved scene.

As you can see, Aristotle had his own ideas as to what a tragedy should consist of, and Shakespeare hit them pretty close to the mark with Romeo and Juliet.

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Romeo and Juliet

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