Who is most to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?
There are many people who may be to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. These people are their parents, for continuing the feud, Mercutio, for taking Romeo to the ball where he met Juliet, and even Romeo and Juliet themselves, for their roles in their own demise. The person possibly most to blame, however, is likely Friar Laurence, for he kept Romeo and Juliet’s relationship a secret and left Juliet, giving her an opportunity to kill herself.
Friar Laurence. ....For the watch is coming. / Come, go, good Juliet, I dare no longer stay.
Juliet. Go, get thee hence, for I will not away.
[Exit Friar Laurence]
If, then, there is but one culprit who must be chosen, Friar Laurence is the most culpable as he secretly marries the lovers, he hides Romeo , and he provides Juliet with the sleeping potion; moreover, he leaves the emotionally vulnerable Juliet...
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The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet has been a topic of educated discourse for generations. Educators, students, directors, actors, anyone who reads the text is going to take sides on controversial issues that are addressed within the play. As such, in addressing the question, "Who is most to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?", it's easy to point fingers. Is it their parents who are so set on seeing their only children continue their legacy that they don't listen to the cries of youth? Is it Tybalt, Mercutio, and other peers who pressure the two youths to act on their emotions and desires in the heat of the moment? Is it Romeo and Juliet who both make numerous decisions and act in ways that force them deeper and deeper into secrecy and danger? Or is it Father Laurence who, ultimately, marries the two in secrecy and then abandons a living Juliet in the tomb for the sake of saving his own skin? Each of these are justified suspects; nonetheless, Shakespeare makes it clear that society drives every turn of the road that leads to Romeo and Juliet's death. Via expectations of class, gender, and religion, the moment Romeo and Juliet see each other they are fated for disaster.
Romeo and Juliet are expected to marry within or above their class. As Romeo gets older, his parents begin to question him and push him even more toward marriage. Romeo, an avid reader and overly dramatic Romanticist, believes that Rosaline is the only woman for him, and she has just vowed herself to celibacy. And then he lays eyes on Juliet, a perfect match by societal standards and especially by his eyes. Yet, their families, who would make excellent suitors for each other, are embroiled in a "gang war" that has lasted beyond the memory of reason. As such, it creates an immediate conflict when Romeo and Juliet "fall in love." It seems as though Juliet's father may be willing to listen to pleadings of the heart as he tells Paris, in the beginning of the play, that he wants Juliet to have some say in the choice of her husband, but once Tybalt kills Mercutio and then dies by Romeo's hand, Capulet is placed in an undesirable political position opposite the Prince. It was, after all, his family (Tybalt) that started the fight, which is a major factor in Romeo's banishment versus being put to death. But Capulet doesn't want to be at odds with the Prince and quickly realizes that a marriage between Juliet and Paris (the Prince's nephew) will place him in a familial relation to the Prince and quickly bridge the divide. So he arranges the marriage and with haste. It is socially appropriate and expected for Capulet to do such. Juliet's opinion is but a side note. So, whether we approve of it today or not, Romeo and Juliet's parents are only acting according to society's expectations of class as they ignorantly attempt to draw a chasm between the two lovers.
Tybalt is another character who ignorantly draws a chasm, but, again, his actions are mainly pushed by society. While many wish for the violence between the families to stop, the "machismo" that has been established is impossible for Tybalt to avoid. In their society, as a man, if you are affronted or offended by another man, you must stand up for yourself and defend your name. Tybalt naively believes himself to be affronted and offended by Romeo's attendance of a Capulet party. He intends to protect his name immediately but is stopped by his uncle. Thus, when Tybalt encounters Romeo out in the open, he believes it is his duty to defend himself. Romeo, unaware of any offense and also aware that he is now Tybalt's cousin-in-law (Romeo and Juliet are married just before this meeting), refuses to fight. Mercutio, again acting according to societal expectations, believes that Romeo is about to be defamed by this pacifist reaction and, already disliking Tybalt, steps in to act on behalf of Romeo's "manliness." Mercutio is slain as a result of Romeo's interference and, enraged, Romeo kills Tybalt. Each of them are acting within the expectations society has placed on their genders. In the same way, Juliet is entrapped by her own gender and the expectations society has. Women of this time are expected to marry or join the nunnery (the only other option is prostitution). A married woman is then expected to do the will of her husband and to act within the confines of their class. Juliet likes none of this and desires to fall in love and have a more liberal lifestyle with the man she chooses. Once her father makes the decision to marry her to Paris (besides the fact that she is already married to Romeo), Juliet sees no option (nunnery or prostitution if she rejects Paris) but suicide. Neither Romeo or Juliet were old enough or wise enough to see any option other than to act within the confines placed upon their genders by society.
To complicate matters further, Shakespeare makes sure to include religion. Facing some historic moments in religion, Shakespeare sees issue with the way that many countries are held captive to the rulings of the church, and he is never afraid to address those issues in his plays. Romeo and Juliet is no exception. Friar Laurence is brought into the conflict as a potential peacemaker and advisor. Seeing a possibility to end the family quarrel and, perhaps, be the hero, Friar Laurence decides to bypass the "state laws" and marries the couple in secret. His hope is that as things calm down, Romeo and Juliet can come forward with their union and help their families find peace, and maybe the church will be seen as the way for answers as opposed to the methods of the Prince (the state). Once he's married the two, he can't have this knowledge come forward until it will work, otherwise he stands to lose his religious standing. Thus, he repeatedly takes steps to ensure the secret remains a secret until it's okay for him to have the secret come forward. Yet, when Capulet promises Juliet to Paris, the Friar is placed in a predicament (he can not let Juliet be married to two different men under the eyes of God) that eventually leads to him helping Juliet fake her death so he can sneak her off to Romeo (to likely never return and get him off the hook). And then when things go awry, he runs away and leaves Juliet to kill herself while he makes an escape. The Friar is clearly the easiest to lay blame on, but again, he is only acting within the expectations of his church position. Yes, he breaks those rules in marrying the couple, but he in only trying to meet the expectations on the church to bring peace and salvation to society. His following actions, while trying to save himself, are also meant to save face for the church and to keep society happy.
Blame is likely to be had in multiple ways by multiple people, but Shakespeare's desire to show that the ultimate culprit is society can be wrapped up by the final scene. Both families are brought to peace after being faced with the knowledge that their enmity drew a chasm between their two children, the town, including the Prince, has to accept the loss of several people as a result of their expectations, and the Friar is forced to "confess" to his part in the tragedy. But the fact that Shakespeare has much of the town out to hear the Prince's final speech is the capstone of blame - it is the society as a whole who must carry the burden of responsibility.