Duality and Antithesis in Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is obviously a tragedy of imprudent young love and its ensuing complications. However, Shakespeare manipulates the heedless romance between Romeo and Juliet to entangle two feuding families and uses the young lovers’ romance to connote the paradoxical nature of the play. The conflict between the Capulets and the Montagues is due to the fact that each regards their family as completely honorable and the other as completely evil. The dialogue between Capulet and Tybalt in Act I.5 is a dramatic reversal of expectations and the resulting contraries serve as a reminder of the duality of customs and people.

Shakespeare begins Romeo and Juliet with a prologue that insists that the conflict is not between an evil family and an honorable family, but rather between “two households, both alike in dignity” (I.Prologue.1). The prologue illustrates the course of action of the play as the “star-crossed lovers take their life” (I.Prologue.6), to “bury their parents’ strife” (I.Prologue. 8). The action begins with Romeo forlorn over the unreturned love of his beloved, Rosaline, and the immediate conflict that arrises between members of both houses. The fight between Sampson and Benvolio is the first of the seemingly constant conflict between the two houses that plagues Verona and is a central part of the play. The dueling is done solely on the basis of kinship and customary allegiances that pit the two families against each other with no justification other than their names. Both families are equal in status and are equal in their contempt for the other with their only difference stemming from their name.

Romeo and Benvolio attend the Capulet feast in an attempt to compare Rosaline to the rest of “the admired beauties of Verona” (I.ii.86). Upon entering the feast, Romeo is immediately lovestruck by a woman he discovers to be a Capulet. As he is praising the beauty of Juliet Capulet, Romeo completely forgets about his old love: “Did my heart love til now? Forswear it, sight! / For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night” (I.v.53-54). This proclamation of love is the first change of many regarding the two families’ perception of the other. Fickle Romeo sets the precedent of changing one’s notions of familial ties and standards to the contrary based on the context and situational developments. For example, his perception of the Capulets is indefinitely altered upon admiring Juliet’s beauty. Tybalt overhears this announcement and states, “This, by his voice, should be a Montague” (I.v.55). Tybalt’s first line immediately changes the tone of the scene from that of optimism and fondness, to that of conviction. Tybalt justifies his judgement by referring to the “stock and honor of my kin” (I.v.59), as a basis “To strike him dead I hold it not a sin” (I.v.60). Tybalt’s hasty response has no basis other than the fact that Romeo is of opposing blood. Which, in itself, is simply a social construct devised by the two families with no grounding other than the self-perpetuating cycle of the feud.

The shifting dialogue between Capulet and Tybalt contrasts hatred with acceptance and proves Tybalt to be the real villain, not Romeo. After Tybalt’s opening vindictive sextet, Capulet counters Tybalt’s resentment with a calm and collected set of questions inquiring as to why Tybalt is so heated. This dramatic reversal is not expected. Prior to this instance, the audience is only exposed to dialogue and diction that condemns kin of opposing families. Capulet’s candid comments are the first in the play that begin to connect the chasm between the two families. Tybalt’s remarks, however, tear at the perceived separation and exacerbates the illusioned conflict. For example, in addressing Capulet’s inquiries, Tybalt’s diction is rife with disdainful words: “Uncle, this is a Montague, our foe, / A villain, that is hither come in spite / To scorn at our solemnity this night” (I.v.62-64). Tybalt repeatedly refers to Romeo as a villain in an attempt to make the conflict personal. The word villain, in Elizabethan context, denotes one as inferior in social status. However, it connotes a sense of condemnation and accusation amongst the audience to further portray the imagined conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets. Tybalt perceives his family as concretely good and the Montagues as definitively evil, which is ironic because the two families are much alike except in name. In failing to realize their similarities, Tybalt in turn becomes the real villain; “a man of ignoble ideas or instincts.”1

Capulet’s first two parts in the dialogue with Tybalt are simple one line questions that portray his calm demeanor towards the situation. His responses correlate with the increasing brashness of Tybalt’s accusations; as Tybalt becomes more vehement, Capulet becomes less tersein his rebuttals and more approving of Romeo. This dramatic reversal of expectations is ironic because old Capulet is the head of the house and is expected to enforce the allegiance to kinship and the denouncement of the Montagues. His praise of Romeo, “a virtuous and well-governed youth”(I.v.69), is contrasted starkly by his criticism of Tybalt after he refuses to accept Romeo as a guest at the feast. Capulet finally asserts his dominance as master of the household as he reprimands Tybalt. He directly asserts his position of authority when he rhetorically asks Tybalt, “Am I the master here, or you? Go to!” (I.v.79). In this exchange, Capulet indirectly demonstrates that Tybalt is indeed the villain in this situation because he is acting out of order, not Romeo. Capulet, unlike Tybalt, realizes that ideas, customs, and people are multidimensional and that their differences are petty in the broader scope of Verona.

The conversation between Capulet and Tybalt is filled with dialogue that foreshadows the ultimate demise and death of Tybalt. Act I.5 is a precursor to the murder scenes in Act III.1 that leave Mercutio and Tybalt dead. As Capulet is chastising Tybalt, he proclaims, in reference to Tybalt’s haughty actions, “This trick may chance to scathe you”(I.v.85). This is a direct warning that Tybalt does not heed. Instead, he continues his disdainful demeanor as he states:

“Patience perforce with willful choler meeting

Makes my flesh tremble in their different greeting.

I will withdraw; but this intrusion shall,

Now seeming sweet, convert to bitt’rest gall” (I.v.90-94).

This foreshadowing quatrain functions to curse Tybalt and portrays his inability to reason and perceive the wholeness and relative insignificance of the two families’ differences.

Act III.1 highlights Romeo’s killing of Tybalt, an act that separates Romeo and Juliet just as they are becoming united. The dramatic reversal of expectations, in hindsight, is obvious. Romeo and Juliet wed in Act II, far too early in the duration of the play for it to end as anything but a tragedy. The tragic ending to the play is also alluded to by Mercutio’s repeated remarks of “A plague a both your houses!” (III.i.90), after he has been stabbed by Tybalt in the quarrel. Mercutio is not a member of either house, but rather is a close friend to Romeo and is a kinsman to the Prince. Thus, it is important to note that Mercutio dies because he consciously involves himself in the conflict between the two families. Mercutio’s last words, “Your houses!”(III.i.107), are a reference to the curse that he bestows upon both the Montagues and the Capulets. Shortly after Mercutio’s death, Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished. Earlier in the scene, Romeo implores both men to “forbear this outrage!” (III.i.86), in an attempt to stop the fighting. However, Romeo is the perpetrator of this outrage. He advised one thing and commits its opposite. This contrary functions in the same framework of a larger set of antitheses, including the unforeseen acceptance of Romeo on the part of Capulet at his feast.

The audience is constantly aware of the duality of the rising action and resolution. As Capulet grieves over the death of his daughter, he laments:

“All things that we ordained festival

Turn from their office to black funeral-

Our instruments to melancholy bells,

Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast,

Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change,

Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corpse,

And all things change them to the contrary” (IV.v.84-90).

Capulet’s elegy is an expression that encompasses a broader theme that runs deep throughout all of Romeo and Juliet. The entire play is a paradoxical expression of people, expectations, and traditions transforming to their opposites. Feuding families become friends and the death of the two lovers gives birth to harmony by ending civil conflict.

Romeo and Juliet is best understood if the audience views the characters’ strife and realizations of self-constructed differences as progress towards a more relative and adjustable view of human nature. As the sacrificial deaths of the two lovers reverse the family feud, it becomes apparent that traditions and people are dynamic and change according to the context of their existence.

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