To what degree are Romeo and Juliet responsible for their own misfortune?

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One of the critical themes of Romeo and Juliet is the destructiveness of emotional turbulence. From that perspective, I think Romeo and Juliet do hold some degree of responsibility for their misfortune. Romeo, for example, is particularly given towards wild swings of emotion, and inclined towards intense feelings and emotional reactions. Consider the scene where Romeo, enraged by Mercutio's death, kills Tybalt (for which he, himself, is banished).

With this in mind, I would suggest that there is some very questionable decision making in the play from Romeo and Juliet and other characters around them. One can point towards Friar Laurence's decision to marry the two in secret, and later his decision to maintain that secrecy afterwards. Marriage is traditionally held as a sacrament, and that Romeo and Juliet lived in a profoundly religious society. Based on that, I think there is an argument that, at a certain point, maintaining the secrecy of said marriage becomes actively harmful. From the start, it had the potential to backfire on Romeo and Juliet themselves and end to the hope of ending the feud. Furthermore, on the subject of Friar Laurence, consider his role in planning Romeo and Juliet's reunion as well as his failure in implementing said plan.

Furthermore, I would suggest that there are certain elements entirely outside of Romeo and Juliet's control or ability to influence. One of these is bad luck or fortune. Consider, for example, that when constructing his plan, Friar Laurence had written Romeo a letter detailing the plot, though that letter is never delivered. Additionally, there is the feud between the Montagues and Capulets and the violence perpetrated in Verona. Keep in mind that this entire tragedy is shaped within that context of vendetta. From that perspective, a great degree of responsibility for Romeo and Juliet's deaths should be assigned to the families themselves.

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Tragedy befalls those who do not accept responsibility for their actions, and Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet certainly suffer the consequences for their irresponsibility.

  • When Romeo secretly attends the party for Juliet, he acts irresponsibly, placing himself in a dangerous situation of encountering his foes.  Juliet realizes this, also, when she inquires of the Nurse his name. In dismay, she remarks,

My only love, sprung from my only hate!Too early seen unknown, and known too late!Prodigious birth of love it is to meThat I must love a loathed enemy. (1.5.147-150)

  • Her instincts have been to act cautiously,--

Well, do not swear. Although I joy in thee, I have no joy of this contract to-night. It is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden; Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be(2.2.122-125)

And even Romeo says he is "afeard"; nevertheless, in the impulsiveness of youth, Romeo and Juliet declare their passions for each other, and rush to be married.

When they arrive at his cell, Friar Laurence declares, "These violent delights have violent ends"(2.6.9), and the passions of Romeo and Juliet override their sense of security and the two marry secretly at the cell of Friar...

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Laurence.  In this impassioned state, Romeo then enters the streets of Verona only to encounter a heated Mercutio arguing with Tybalt, Juliet's cousin.  When Romeo's offer for conciliation is rejected by the fiery Tybalt, who reaches around Romeo to stab Mercutio, Romeo becomes incensed and slays Tybalt, causing his banishment from Verona.

This impulsive act by Romeo sets in motion a series of tragic happenings:

  1. Because Juliet is so disconsolate over the loss of both her beloved cousin and her husband, her parents seek to bring happiness to their family by having her marry Paris. But, of course, Juliet cannot marry anyone since Romeo is her spouse.
  2. With the announcement that she is to marry Paris, Juliet refuses her parents, causing strife. Now in a quandary, Juliet rushes to the cell of Friar Laurence for his advice.  He suggests that she take a potion which will makes her appear to be dead.  Doing so will give Juliet some time, during which the friar hopes to ameliorate difficulties when Juliet "returns" to life. 
  3. The friar does not get his message to Romeo in time because Mantua is under quarantine. Consequently, when Romeo's servant John arrives, he reports that Juliet has died and is buried in the crypt.
  4. Believing his servant, Romeo rushes out in order to procure poison so that he can die, too, because he cannot live without Juliet.  He does not try to contact Friar Laurence, who can tell him the true state of Juliet.
  5. After impulsively killing Paris who enters the catacombs, Romeo finds Juliet still in her self-imposed trance.  Assuming that she is somehow dead, he swallows the poison he has bought.
  6. Then, Friar Laurence enters, only to find Juliet awakening. But, when he hears the guards, the fearful friar tells Juliet, "...I dare no longer stay"; unfortunately, he leaves Juliet alone to discover Romeo. After seeing her beloved dead, Juliet impulsively takes her own life rather than considering her parents' anxieties all this time and going to them.

Certainly, the two "star-crossed lovers" do not act responsibly as they make rash judgments without considering the outcomes of their decisions, and the consequences of such impulsive behavior are tragic.

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It can be said that Romeo and Juliet are only partially responsible for their own deaths. While it is true that their own youthful choices precipitated their deaths, their families' feud was the ultimate cause. In the final scene, Prince Escalus rightly places the blame for Romeo's and Juliet's deaths on the longstanding hatred the two families have felt for each other, as we see in his lines,

Where be these enemies? Capulet, Montage[Montague],See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love! (V.iii.302-204)

In pointing out that God has chosen to punish their perpetual hatred with the deaths of their children, Prince Escalus is also laying the blame of their deaths on Lords Capulet and Montague. Had the two families not felt animosity towards each other, the couple would have been free to marry in peace and Tybalt would not have challenged Romeo, which leads to his own death, Mercutio's, Romeo's exile, and indirectly, Romeo's own death, as well as Juliet's.However, even though perpetual hatred is the ultimate cause of both Romeo's and Juliet's deaths, we must remember that both characters are very, very young. As a result of youth, they both make some very unwise, emotionally driven, and rash decisions. The couple could have made the rational decision to hold off on marrying until they had let their love for each other be made known to their families. It is not a stretch of the imagination to believe that Romeo might have been able to earn Lord Capulet's respect. We learn at the ball in the first act that Capulet, along with all of Verona, acknowledges Romeo to be a "virtuous and well-governed youth" (I.v.71). Since we know that Romeo is generally respected and thought well of, we may be able to assume that he can earn Capulet's respect, who might then consent to the marriage. Juliet also makes a rash decision in agreeing to fake her own death, rather than confess to her father about her earlier marriage, through the friar's help. Finally, Romeo acts rashly when, after seeing Juliet in the tomb, he still believes her to be dead, especially after noticing that she still has color in her face. Only someone who is very young and inexperienced would assume that she is truly dead and that she still has color in her face simply because she is beautiful. We see him observe the color that has returned to her face in his lines,

Death, that suck'd the honey of thy breath,Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.Thou art not conquer'd. Beauty's ensign yet Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks, And death's pale flag is not advanced there. (V.iii.92-96)

Because her lips and cheeks are still red, we can see how young and naive Romeo truly is to continue to believe that she is dead. Had he realized she was still alive, he would have spared both his own life and Juliet's.Hence, while hatred is the primary cause of their deaths, youth and naivety also precipitated their deaths.

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The answer to this question is subjective and best left up to individual audience members, but that is what makes it such a great discussion question. There are generally three ways to go with this answer. First, Romeo and Juliet deserve none of the blame. This argument fully embraces the notion that Romeo and Juliet are the unfortunate consequences of a feud and catastrophic miscommunications. Second, Romeo and Juliet are partly to blame. This is the easiest route to go because it allows a person to spread the blame around on a lot of characters and situations. My personal favorite is option three. Romeo and Juliet deserve 100% of the blame for their eventual deaths. Granted, they are young; however, they are old enough to know that marrying someone from the "enemy family" isn't a good decision. They are also old enough to know that meeting and marrying somebody within a day or two is also not smart. They didn't consult the wisdom of their elders or parents. They depended on messages being ferried to each other rather than using in person communications about their risky plans. They also ultimately killed themselves. Nobody forced them to commit suicide. Saying that Romeo and Juliet are 100% to blame is not often supported by many people, but that is what makes it a fun argument to bring into the discussion.

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In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, how are Romeo and Juliet responsible for their own downfall?

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, it can be argued that the young lovers would have had very different fates had they made better choices—keeping a hold on their anger.

Romeo is rather young—it is estimated that he is only about sixteen years old. When his friend Mercutio (who is also the Prince's kinsman) is killed by the bad-tempered Tybalt—as a result of the two men trading insults—Romeo loses his composure.


Alive in triumph, and Mercutio slain?

Away to heaven respective lenity,

And fire-ey'd fury be my conduct now!

Now, Tybalt, take the ‘villain’ back again

That late thou gavest me; for Mercutio's soul

Is but a little way above our heads,

Staying for thine to keep him company.

Either thou or I, or both, must go with him. (III.i.123-130)

Romeo throws his desire for peace to the wind and challenges Tybalt on Mercutio's behalf. He breaks the law in killing Tybalt (who is also Juliet's cousin), and is punished. While the penalty is supposed to be death, Escalus shows mercy and banishes Romeo from Mantua. This is not the end of the world, but Romeo is too immature to be patient and wait. Sadly, being reunited with Juliet would not have been at all impossible, but Romeo lets his emotions get the best of him.

Juliet, on the other hand, is generally more level-headed. When Juliet's parents try to force Juliet to marry Paris (which she cannot do: she does not love him, but she is also married to Romeo), the nurse mistakenly tells Juliet that it might be easier to marry Paris and forget Romeo—who she may never see and/or never be with. She notes that Paris is a much better man: Romeo is like a dishrag compared to Paris. (I believe the nurse does this to make Juliet feel better.)


Faith, here it is.

Romeo is banish'd; and all the world to nothing

That he dares ne'er come back to challenge you;

Or if he do, it needs must be by stealth. 

Then, since the case so stands as now it doth,

I think it best you married with the County.

O, he's a lovely gentleman!

Romeo's a dishclout to him. (III.v.222-229)

So when Juliet and Friar Lawrence come up with a plan to fake Juliet's death, she turns her back on her nurse who has been with her since she was born. The nurse stands up for Juliet when her parents threaten to throw her out into the streets if Juliet does not marry Romeo. In her fury over what she perceives as the nurse's betrayal, Juliet shuts the nurse out of her plans regarding Romeo. Just before she is ready to drink the friar's sleeping potion, she ask the nurse and Lady Capulet to leave the room so she can sleep alone the evening before her wedding. The nurse's devotion to Juliet is seen when she finds Juliet "dead" the next morning.

Like Romeo, Juliet also lets her anger get the best of her. Had the nurse known of Juliet and Friar Lawrence's plan, the nurse would most probably have been at the tomb waiting for her charge to wake up, and would then have been able to tell Romeo what was happening. Romeo and Juliet would most likely have survived and left Verona to make a life elsewhere.

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In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, how are Romeo and Juliet responsible for their own downfall?

It is difficult to really argue that Romeo and Juliet were responsible for their own tragedy, because the Prologue makes it clear that they were "star-cross'd," meaning that they were fated to meet, fall in love, and ultimately perish. Indeed, their deaths reconcile their feuding families, suggesting that some higher purpose was served by their tragedy. That said, maybe the strongest argument for Romeo and Juliet's culpability might be made by looking at the concept of familial loyalty. Both of them were bound by ties of blood to serve the interests of their families, and each violated this responsibility by pursuing their powerful desire for the other. Juliet, in particular would have been expected to obey her father's wishes in marrying Paris (though by the time the wedding was actually arranged she had married Romeo) and by refusing to do so would have been rejecting the natural, divinely-ordained order of things. Once they made this decision, some might have argued, their deaths were inevitable. In short, both Romeo and Juliet were aware of the boundaries and the rules of the world they inhabited, and they knew that they were violating these norms. By doing so, they risked their own lives, and could thus be said to be responsible, if not necessarily worthy of blame, for their own deaths. 

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