By Michael Flachmann
Romeo and Juliet is, above all, a play about families. From the opening choral prologue which invites us to meet “Two households, both alike in dignity” (prologue.1) to the bloody conclusion where both clans flood into the tomb as witnesses to the lovers’ tragic deaths, Shakespeare emphasizes the often contorted and always intense connection between individuals and the families to which they belong. In fact, one mark of the play’s greatness lies in the way different characters respond to the family pressures which alternately define, nourish, and sometimes suffocate them.
As the word “households” implies, many of the relationships in the play are based on the concept of extended families. The Capulet clan, for example, not only consists of such immediate blood relations as the father, mother, and Juliet, but also casts a wider circle to include Tybalt, the nurse, Peter, Petruchio, and many other assorted relatives and retainers. Like servants who don the livery of their masters, these family members wear their affiliation on their sleeves for everyone to see, much like modern gang members sport colors to identify themselves. Similarly, the Montagues, no less in “dignity,” claim an extensive variety of members in their familial turf.
Although such family affiliation nurtures and protects, it also smothers, which means that hot-bloods like Mercutio and Tybalt must continually press the envelope of social behavior to distinguish themselves as unique members of a common community. The feud persists, in part, because of the desire these younger men have to find identity through rebellion, to repudiate the rival family, and to differentiate themselves from the older and less aggressive members of their own tribes.
Part of the tragedy of the play, therefore, is that Romeo and Juliet must transcend their kindred in order to consummate their love. So long as they are trapped within their respective families, their relationship has little chance of survival. For Juliet, being smothered within the Capulet clan is like awakening in a tomb—a collective body of deceased relatives “whose foul mouth no healthsome air breathes in” (4.3.34). Surrounded by such stifling kinship, she will “die strangled” (35) unless rescued by her lover. Unfortunately, Juliet’s principal attempt to escape her family through Friar Lawrence’s sleeping potion is marred by a fatalistic lack of initiative that draws her deeper into the morbid embrace of her dead kinsmen. In seeking life with Romeo away from the clutches of her parents, she finds only death within the family burial chamber.
In like fashion, Romeo attempts to separate from his parents and friends in much the same way that Juliet does. As Montague explains to Benvolio at the outset of the play, Romeo “private in his chamber pens himself, / Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out, / And makes himself an artificial night” (1.1.138 140). With Juliet in the famous balcony scene, he willingly agrees to renounce his Montague family name because “it is an enemy to thee” (2.2.56). And in act two, scene four, he admits to giving Mercutio and his other friends “the slip” (48) when they pursued him after the party. All forces in the play, however, conspire to keep Romeo mired within his family. His attempts to “be new baptized” (2.2.50) are thwarted by Mercutio’s death, the nurse’s disloyalty, and the friar’s “osier cage” of “baleful weeds” (2.3.7 8). Even the plague, which keeps Friar John from delivering his fateful letter because he is “sealed up” within an infected town (5.2.11), emblemizes the deadly and claustrophobic nature of family relationships in this play.
Similarly, the desire of Juliet’s father to entice the wealthy and well-connected Paris into the Capulet family is thwarted by his daughter, who like an ill-trained hawk “mewed” in its cage (3.4.11) refuses to snatch up this rich morsel of food to sustain her family. Confronted by Juliet’s apparent suicide in act four, scene five, Capulet thinks immediately of his own loss of progeny when he tells Paris that “Death is my son in law, death is my heir; / My daughter he hath wedded. I will die / And leave him all” (38 40). The loss of his only child will mean the eventual demise of the family line that defines his very existence. Juliet’s suicide in the tomb in act five, scene three brings death, therefore, not only to herself, but to her entire future “household.”
Like Romeo and Juliet, we must all separate from our families, as the children we used to be grow into the adults we must become. In this play, however, the sin of breaking away proves fatal because of the deadly context into which these young lovers are placed. Beset by feud, plague, dysfunctional relatives, and a sense of isolation, Romeo and Juliet become “poor sacrifices” to the enmity of their elders (5.3.33) through their vain attempt to transcend family for love and kinship for self-identity. The loss of childhood becomes real rather than symbolic, and the cost of leaving the family emphasizes the brevity and fragility of young love just as it confirms the price of revenge in a world where forgiveness has never been a virtue. The deaths of Romeo and Juliet achieve, therefore, a tragic beauty which allows us to see the brilliance of their devotion to each other set within the dark hatred of the family feud. Ironically, in separating from their families, they lose their lives at the exact moment that they find themselves.