Are Romeo and Juliet tragic heroes or victims of fate?Are Romeo and Juliet tragic heroes or victims of fate?

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clarendon's profile pic

clarendon | College Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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As hinted at in several posts, this topic seems to set up a false dichotomy. According to Aristotle, the most important part of a tragedy is the plot. In this play, it is clear that Shakespeare sets up a tragic plot in such a way as to take advantage of the characters' mistakes (although it is important to note that the first half is comedic). He announces it when he calls Romeo and Juliet "star-crossed" and shows it such moments as when Friar Laurence's letter cannot reach Romeo due to the external factor of the plague. The real question isn't if the two lovers are victims of fate--of course they are--but rather if they actually qualify as tragic heroes. To that end, an analysis should focus on anagnorisis since their role in society militates against the point. For my part, what is significant about the play is the seeming inevitability of the catastrophe along with the steadfastness of will in the two lovers, especially is ones so young. That said, they are pipsqueaks compared to the great tragic heroes; that Shakespeare would go on to create Hamlet and Lear less than fifteen years later is incredible.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet, fate is certainly mentioned with reference to the "star-crossed" lovers.  And, it is clearly out of their control that Romeo and Juliet come from families that have such antipathy for one another. Then, too, Romeo has not come to the Capulet party with any intentions other than to comply with his friend, Benvolio's advice to entertain himself and look around.  However, when Romeo learns Juliet's name, he should not have pursued her by climbing her orchard walls.  Herein, then, the fault lies in Romeo and not in the stars.  Likewise, their deciding so impulsively to marry is of their own choices. 

All the subsequent actions that follow are colored by the paths that Romeo and Juliet have chosen, save one:  the plague that strikes Mantua.  Yet, had Romeo made better choices earlier in the play, he would not have been banished and, perhaps, he and Juliet could have spoken to the feuding parents.  Indeed, their final tragic acts indicate that the "fault is not in the stars," but in themselves; it is in their impulsiveness that cries out, "Fate I defy you!"

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lsumner | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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I believe Romeo and Juliet are tragic heroes.  It is tragic that their two families cannot get along.  It is tragic that the two of them found each other.  There deaths are the result of a deliberate argument between two families.  Fate is not involved.  I don't beleive it was fate that led them to one another.  I believe it was a meant to be love story that will never be copied in the same fashion.  No other two loved so deeply until one could not live without the other.  These two, Romeo and Juliet, are two people who became tragic heroes because their deaths brought about triumphant change.  The two families recognized the error of their ways in the death of their loved ones.  If Romeo and Juliet had lived happily ever after, they would not have overcome evil with good.  Because of their love for one another which ultimately ends in death, they become heroes--tragic heroes who change the way two families look at one another.  Thank goodness their deaths were not in vain--now that would have been tragic.

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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I don't see Romeo as a tragic hero based on Aristotle's requirements. He may be, but I'm not sure what his tragic flaw is: inexperience and youthfulness aren't flaws. I don't see Juliet as a hero either. Though she seems more grounded than Romeo, I also don't see a tragic flaw in her, and I thought tragic heroes were men...

Both young people defy the norms of their society and live, and die, on their terms, even though there is an element of the Friar's plan—which doesn't have a contingency for a change in the plan. Based on what they know and see, and how they feel about each other, the young lovers choose their love of the other and death, rather than living without the one he/she loves.

As victims of fate, we know from the prologue that the two are "star-crossed lovers." Based upon what the audience believed (and Shakespeare), they are fated to die, and no one can escape his/her fate. In this way, I guess they are victims of fate.

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mrs-nelson | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

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I say "victims of their own choices".  I don't think they were tragic heroes or victims of fate.  When I teach this play,  students do wonder why anyone would feel sorry for this pair or call them heroes.  Many students can clearly see the consequences of poor choices (by R&J and the adults in the play).  There are several situtations led by fate as Shakespeare would have it, but most of these situtations would not have occurred if bad choices did not precipitate them. 

This is a great question though, and leads students to in-depth discussions about their views.  As long as you can support your opinion with evidence from the play - you are usually right, even if the person behind you has the opposite view!  This is what makes English more of an art than a discipline (and why most English teachers love it). 

lhc's profile pic

lhc | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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A cynical view might be that Romeo and Juliet were victims of youthful naivete and overactive hormones!  The play opens with Romeo moping around brooding over Rosaline; however, within moments of sighting Juliet, Rosaline is ancient history, and now he has found his true love!  One has to credit Shakespeare with creating this early version of a soap opera, even as he was writing a tragedy that has stood the test of time.  The two made choices that they knew were risky, but one hallmark of youth is the inability at times to foresee the possibility of dire consequences related to one's choices.  Thankfully, there were no motor vehicles to operate during that time period, as neither Romeo nor Juliet could probably be trusted with sound judgement and decision making!

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amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Even though the Prologue states that they are "star-crossed" indicating that they are fated, I must also agree that they have free will and choose their fate.  Romeo and Juliet both know that their families have been feuding forever, and that if caught, they will suffer the consequences.  They choose to forgo this, and continue to see each other.  They choose to keep their love secret and to bring the nurse and friar into their little secret.  Romeo chooses to avenge Mercutio's death, thus facing banishment.  Juliet chooses to fake her own death, and Romeo chooses to purchase the poison which, in the end, kills them both. 

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I'll go with tragic heroes.  I don't really believe in fate and I don't think fate is necessary to the play, even if Shakespeare does call the two of them "star-crossed."

I think they're tragic heroes because they are making their own choices and their choices are noble, if somewhat rash and hurried.  They want to pursue their own lives and their own love rather than just being controlled by their families' hatreds.

So I don't think they're controlled by destiny.  I think they are making their own choices which are noble but which end up in tragedy.  Therefore, they are tragic heroes.

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ask996 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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Yes he says they're "star-crossed", however, he also indicates enmity between the families is "new mutiny." They are tragic heroes in the truest sense. A tragic hero is one who has a tragic flaw that leads to his downfall. Romeo's nature seems to be mercurial. Don't forget that just prior to meeting Juliet he was in "love" with the fair Rosaline. Even the priest makes comment and chides Romeo about this. Had he not been so impetuous things might have developed differently.

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lmetcalf | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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While they suffer a terrible fate, I too agree that they are tragic, not fated characters.  Tragic heroes have inherent flaws, and sometimes those flaws are really only flaws in certain circumstances, but nonetheless, those flaws cause their downfall.  For example, Romeo is intensely loyal, but that loyalty to family and honor drive him to avenge Mercutio's death and set in motion all of the rest of the events of the play. 

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that they are both. Whilst I dislike the idea of fate myself, it is clear that there was so much going against Romeo and Juliet and so much that was out of their hands. They couldn't have predicted the way that fate interfered in Juliet's plan to escape marriage to Paris and the tragic end that they both receive, for example. Therefore, I do think that fate is an important component that cannot be ignored.

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Perhaps both.  Victims of their family names and the restrictions it placed on their lives and associations.  But the story is overwhelmingly and obviously a tragedy, so if I had to pick between the two, I'd say it is that.  Not just because of the tragic end, but because of their repeated struggles and extreme lengths they go to to avoid personal tragedy, and it catches up with them anyway.

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rskardal | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator

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While I can see both sides, I'm also inclined to say "tragic." These are clearly characters with fatal flaws, and they're warned of them time and again. The tension that the audience feels is generated as much from the R&J's flaws as it is from any sense of fate(l) intervention.

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