Ollie Blyth – Essay – Two-Thousand and Eighteen
Word Count: 1388
Explain the extent to which you agree with the following statement:
“Romeo is the perfect example of a traditional tragic hero.”
In one of William Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Romeo and Juliet, (1594) one of the leading characters, Romeo, has been labelled as the story’s tragic hero. In the play, two young people from opposing families fall in love and get married, but an unfortunate series of events then unfold that eventually lead to both the lovers committing suicide; they would rather be dead than seperate from each other. But then, out of all this, to what extent is Romeo a tragic hero? Furthermore, to what extent is Romeo a traditional tragic hero? To define what traditional means in the context of tragedy, we need to travel back from Shakespearean times to the world of Ancient Greek philosophy and drama. Here, a whole new level of definition towards the idea of a tragic hero can be uncovered. From this point, one can see beyond the face value of the story and into it’s deeper meanings, developing a greater appreciation for Shakespeare and his works.
For a start, what is a traditional tragic hero? The literary, or dramatic idea of a ‘tragic hero’ is one that is almost as old as drama itself. Like the English language, it is something that morphs and develops over time, through different authors, playwrights, and audiences. But then, what is a traditional tragic hero? In the context of a tragic hero, traditional means classic, primary, or original, as in the general concept of the idea. Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, tells us that tragic heroes must have the following traits in their story: a flaw in their judgment, a change in fortune brought about by the flaw, the discovery of this fortune, an inflated ego, and that their fate is greater than deserved. He also wrote that they should be the protagonist of the story. Romeo, as one of the main protagonists in the play, does have most of these traits in his own story: At the end of Scene 1, Act III, after killing Tybalt, Romeo openly exclaims, “O, I am fortune’s fool,” as he openly references that he is a plaything of fate. In Scene 4, Act I, he also foreshadows his own inevitable death, “I fear, too early: for my mind misgives some consequence in the stars shall bitterly begin his fearful date with this night’s revels and expire the term of a despised life closed in my breast by some vile forfeit of untimely death.” Here Romeo dramatically reminds the audience of the pretold fact that he will die at the end of the play while also making a reference to ‘the stars,’ which in Elizabethan Times, was where God was believed to look down upon the world. It was widely believed that the alignment of stars would determine one’s future. In a sense, a traditional tragic hero is an egotistical character whose plans turns against him/her through what appears to be a reversal of fate. No matter how hard the character tries to reverse this fate back, ‘fate’ pushes on to finish with the gradual demise and isolation of the hero. One could argue that fate alone is the villain of the story. These are the founding ideas of Aristotle’s tragic hero, and what a traditional tragic hero looks like.
In all of Shakespeare’s plays, specific language techniques are used to highlight the traits and characteristics of his protagonists, while also using it as a character development tool. Here, in the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s language is very poetic, using rhyming sequences, metaphors, and smilies. His language is dramatic, which lays out the fact that Romeo himself is an over-the-top, dramatic character, “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! It seems she hands upon the cheek of night, like a rich jewel on an Ethiop’s ear!” However, by the end of the play Shakespeare has dropped out the rhyming sequences and given Romeo rhetoric questions, exclamations, and hyperbole to work with, while still maintaining his dramatic characteristics. Now one can notice a considerable evolution in his language choices, “O my love, my wife! Death hath suck’d the honey of thy breath, hath no power yet upon thy beauty.” Another place where Shakespeare has inserted use of language to show character development is the ‘Romeo on the Sea’ analogy. Near the end of the play, Romeo speaks to himself, “Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on the dashing rocks thy seasick weary bark!” Many literary analysts have looked into this metaphor, and seen that in fact Romeo’s story is similar to a sailor on the sea, calm one minute, and rough the next. Even though the duration of the play is only about 2 hours long, and only covers a period of five days, the audience can now feel more connected to Romeo, as though they have ‘walked a mile’ with him. And even though we – as the audience – know that he and Juliet will both die in the end, a connection to the characters makes us feel more denial, sadness, and longing for it to have a happy ending as they commit their ‘acts of fatality.’ This is the material that makes a great tragedy.
However, Romeo is not quite the perfect example of a traditional tragic hero. Shakespeare has, in this play, extended the barriers of a tragic hero confined around the idea of a leading protagonist and taken it to almost all of the leading characters in the play. This makes it more of a ‘tragic hero grouping’ as opposed to one tragic hero. In the play, all of the leading characters have similar traits to Aristotle’s original ideas. Even naive Juliet makes references to her inevitable fate in the beginnings of the play, “If he be married, my grave is to be my wedding bed,” which is an example of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony, in this context, is when Juliet is exclaiming that she would rather die than be without Romeo, which really does happen at the end of the play, which the audience already knows. Friar Lawrence, another tragic hero in the play, is actually more aligned with Aristotle’s traits than Romeo is. He makes the decision to put Juliet to sleep, relies on Friar John to deliver the message, and even believes that the marriage will cause the families to end their feud, with all coming out unscathed, “For this alliance may so happy prove, to turn your household’s rancour to pure love.” As the play progresses, he still has strong belief in the idea that he can control the situation singlehandedly, until he finally recognises his own bad fortune at the very end, “A greater power than we can contradict hath thwarted our intents.” In a sense, Friar Lawrence is the most traditional tragic hero in the play. This renders Romeo a member of the ‘tragic hero grouping,’ and not necessarily the perfect example of a traditional tragic hero.
So, is Romeo of Montague the perfect example of a traditional tragic hero? In the play, Shakespeare used the idea that not just the leading protagonist was the object of fate, and was able to effectively highlight the development of his characters, while also demonstrating the idea of fate. Romeo is not quite what can be defined as traditional. He does not, for example, make a destructive flaw or decision that impacts the entirety of his story. All Romeo does is fall in love with Juliet and tries his best to be with her. Interestingly enough, other characters in the play have more in common with Aristotle’s traits than Romeo does, such as Friar Lawrence. In this play, fate is guiding the characters to their pretold death or demise, no matter what choice they make. Some character choices, one might argue, are enforced and controlled by fate. Almost all of Romeo’s decisions after Act II seem to be controlled by the entity of fate and not Romeo himself (they are all out of his characteristics). In conclusion, I agree with the above statement to a basic extent. But as I delve deeper into the ever unfolding, rich evidence from the play alone, Romeo’s ‘traditional tragic hero authenticity’ declines, and my already large appreciation for Shakespeare’s work increases.