What are some examples of pessimism in Romeo and Juliet, and what elements of the era of pessimism are reflected in the play?

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When Shakespeare created the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, he displayed a sense of pessimism that would slowly gather strength at the end of the Elizabethan era and into the Jacobean era that followed. Pessimism involves looking at things from a negative viewpoint and expecting the worst. Although Romeo ...

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When Shakespeare created the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, he displayed a sense of pessimism that would slowly gather strength at the end of the Elizabethan era and into the Jacobean era that followed. Pessimism involves looking at things from a negative viewpoint and expecting the worst. Although Romeo and Juliet is from the Elizabethan era, it demonstrates—through the actions and speech of the characters—the growing tendency of the people to look for the negative in their present and in their future. Only by experiencing sadness can the reader truly appreciate happiness, but this tragedy has very little to do with happiness.

In the Prologue, the reader gets the first clue that the relationship between Romeo and Juliet will end in a negative way when the Chorus states that two families are feuding and “from ancient grudge break to new mutiny.” The Chorus leaves nothing to the imagination about the end of this play when it also mentions that “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.” From this point on, the reader is left to expect a sad outcome, which contributes to the feel of pessimism throughout the play.

In the first scene when Benvolio, nephew of Montague, tries to keep the peace, but Tybalt, nephew of Lady Capulet, views Benvolio’s actions as an attempt to fight, misreading the situation. This leads to a major altercation between the two and in turn causes Lord Capulet to say, “My sword, I say. Old Montague is come” (1.1.79). However, Lady Capulet makes fun of him saying he should ask for a crutch instead. In like manner, Montague wants to attack Capulet, but his wife tells him, “Thou shalt not step one foot to seek a foe” (1.1.82). The two wives know that nothing good can come from this feud. As if in answer to their fears, along comes Prince Escalus with the words, “If ever you disturb our streets again your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace” (1.1.98-99). These words foreshadow the lives that will pay the price for this feud—namely, those of Romeo and Juliet.

Both Romeo and Juliet display their own pessimistic views in how their deaths play out. Romeo assumes that Juliet has died and never stops to think of the possibility that she is not dead. As he drinks the poison his words show that he assumes the worst, even when there is reason to believe otherwise: “Why art thou yet so fair? Shall I believe that unsubstantial Death is amorous” (5.3.102-103). He does not stop to realize that she looks fair because she is not actually dead. When Juliet awakens, she takes an equally pessimistic view of the future by refusing to face it without Romeo. The future looks grim for the families left behind because they have learned the horrible consequences of their continued feud. Prince Escalus reminds them, “…heaven finds means to kill your joys with love” (5.3.303). Certainly the families may no longer feud, but they will never have back their Romeo and Juliet.

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