It is universally admitted that a tragedy opens happily and ends unhappily but a moody opens unhappily and ends happily. Since Romeo and Juliet ends unhappily it has been treated as a tragedy. However, had Juliet awaken a few minutes earlier or Romeo arrived a few minutes later the consequence would have been totally different. The young couple would have united and lived happily thereafter defeating the older generation’s family feud. In that case, Romeo and Juliet would have been an exquisite comedy. Here lies the main point of the controversy.
Is the end of a play is enough to decide whether a play is a comedy or a tragedy, or the development of the plot is equally important? There is no doubt that both are important factors as the rules of art because the development of the plot line of a tragedy sign efficiently differs from that of a comedy. In his discussion on tragedy, Aristotle instructed that “The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad” (Poetics, XIII). Let us recall here some of the famous tragic protagonists.
Oedipus Rexes opens with the hero who is at the height of a great king. King Lear opens with the king as the most powerful monarch enjoying absolute power. Macbeth starts when the protagonist is at the highest peak of his success. All these tragic heroes gradually face adversity. Their respective fortunes change ‘from good to bad” and their stories take tragic shape accordingly. In Romeo and Juliet, the protagonist does not have such a height of any kind. He is a young man of a noble family, the Montague, which is in the age-old enmity with the Caplet, another noble family.
In the expository part he is seen frustrated because he has fallen in love with one Rosalie who has not responded to his love. The action rises soon as Romeo attends the Caplet party where he meets Juliet. As soon as they meet they fall in love without knowing each other. When Romeo finds out from Gullet’s nurse that Juliet is the daughter of Caplet-?his family’s enemy-?he becomes disappointed. When Juliet learns that the young man she has just kissed is the son of Montague, she grows equally upset. As the action gets complicated Romeo’ frustration deepens.
He and Juliet talk on the balcony. He talks to Friar Laurence about marrying Juliet. They marry secretly. The next day, Romeo, in a rage, kills Table. The action gets more complicated; Romeos frustration deepens further. Climax takes place with Romeos banishment from Verona for his crime. Friar Lawrence arranges for Romeo to spend his adding night with Juliet before he has to leave for Mantra the following morning. Romeo sneaks into Gullet’s room that night, and at last they consummate their marriage and their love. Morning comes, and the lovers bid farewell. Falling action begins.
Juliet learns that her father, affected by the recent events, now intends for her to marry Paris in just three days. No knowing what to do Juliet hurries to Friar Lawrence who concocts a plan to reunite Juliet with Romeo in Mantra. The night before her wedding to Paris, Juliet must drink a potion that will make her appear to be dead. After she is aid to rest in the family’s burial chamber, the Friar and Romeo will secretly retrieve her, and she will be free to live with Romeo, away from their parents’ feuding. That night, Juliet drinks the potion, and the Nurse discovers her, apparently dead, the next morning.
The Capsules grieve, and Juliet is entombed according to plan. But Friar Lawrence message explaining the plan to Romeo never reaches Mantra. Its bearer, Friar John, gets confined to a quarantined house. Romeo hears only that Juliet is dead. He decides to kill himself rather than live without her. He buys a vial Of poison from a reluctant Apothecary, then speeds back to Verona to take his own life at Gullet’s tomb. At Gullet’s grave he kills Paris. He enters the tomb, sees Gullet’s inanimate body, drinks the poison, and dies by her side.
Just then, Friar Lawrence enters and realizes that Romeo has killed Paris and himself. At the same time, Juliet awakes. Friar Lawrence hears the coming of the watch. When Juliet refuses to leave with him, he flees alone. Juliet sees her beloved Romeo and realizes he has killed himself with poison. She kisses his poisoned lips, and when that does not kill her, buries his dagger in her chest, falling dead upon his body. The catastrophe takes place. In the plot of Romeo and Juliet it is evident that the fortune of the protagonist does not change “from good to bad”, rather it changes from bad to worse.
The initial frustration never leaves Romeo and Juliet. It rather gets deeper and deeper till they die. In A Midsummer Nights Dream, the frustrated couples recover themselves from suffering and become finally happy. In As You Like It, Orlando and Roseland suffer intensely because of family rivalry but finally they come out victorious defeating adversity. In Romeo and Juliet it does not happen. The plot closely resembles he plot of a comedy till the catastrophic deaths which suddenly turn the play into a tragedy. Why did Shakespeare do so?
It is difficult to guess one definite answer. Perhaps, he did not want to challenge the parental authority prevailing in the Elizabethan English society. Perhaps, he wanted to follow the law of nature and did not want to idealize love. Maybe, he wanted to make the young lovers Christ figures who die for others because after their deaths their feuding families end their rivalry and decide to live in peace. There is also possibility that Shakespeare taught himself remorselessness that he added for his great four tragedies which followed Romeo and Juliet.
Whatever may be the reason of ending the play as a tragedy, it is evident that Shakespeare has not followed the traditional rules of dramatic art in Romeo and Juliet. Being a master craftsman he had the immense capacity to turn and twist the plot according to his will only keeping in mind the success of the play on the stage. He could turn a comedy into a tragedy, as is the case of Romeo and Juliet or turn a tragedy into a comedy, as is the case of The Tempest. He succeeded in each case. Critics may classify these plays as tragicomedy but that hardly matters to him.