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The Death Motif in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
Often times, authors use the theme of death throughout their works. This seems to be true of William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. Throughout his play, Shakespeare uses death to move his story along. He does this with actual deaths, which cause problems for the lovers, and through premonitions and dreams of death. Both Juliet and her Romeo exhibit these premonitions/dreams.
The use of death is immediately seen in the prologue of the play: “The fearful passage of their death-marked love…” (Shakespeare Pro. 9). The Prologue offers us the inevitable fate of the two lovers short and abrupt. During the first act of the play, we learn of the Capulet’s ball, and of how the lover’s met. After the ball is over, Juliet says, “…If he be, married, my grave is like to be my wedding bed,” (I, v, ll.143-44) which is a foreboding of the final scene of the play. This partially leads to Romeo and Tybalt’s duel in III, i, as Romeo’s presence at the ball antagonizes Tybalt. In II, iv, Benvolio and Mercutio reveal that Tybalt has sent Romeo a challenge to a duel.
Just before the arrival of Juliet, the Friar warns Romeo against consummating their new marriage too quickly. Romeo agrees, but challenges death to ruin the moment, “…then love-devouring death do what he dare…” (I, vi, ll.7.). Now if only the marriage was made public, these forebodings may not have come to pass especially the duel with Tybalt.
In III, i, Tybalt accosts Benvolio and Mercutio in search of Romeo. Now, Romeo does not want to duel with Tybalt as he is now secretly his kinsman, but this does not stop Mercutio for getting in the mix with Tybalt. Romeo gets between the two men, and as Tybalt attempts to run Romeo through, the sword goes under Romeo’s arm and mortally wounds Mercutio. Before he is taken away, Mercutio says to Romeo, “Why the devil came you between us…A plague o’ both your houses! They have made worms’ meat of me. I have it, and soundly too. A plague!” (ll.102-103, 10106-108). Here, we see Mercutio cursing the two houses, and, in essence, foreboding things to come. Mercutio is taken to a near house to be treated, and moments later, Romeo is informed of Mercutio’s death. Romeo, now enraged, duels with Tybalt and slays him. The Prince arrives upon the scene, and after an account of the happenings, banishes Romeo to Mantua upon penalty of death. This banishment of Romeo’s inevitably leads to even greater problems later in the play.
In III, ii, Juliet prophesizes bad things to come when she says, “Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine…” (ll.21-23). The Nurse enters and informs Juliet that Tybalt has been slain by Romeo. Juliet looks at the situation as the death of both the men, as Romeo’s banishment is like a death. III, iii is moved to the Friar’s cell, where Romeo is exhibiting his self-pity to the Friar. At the conclusion of the scene, in a reaction of brass judgement, Romeo demands the Friar tell him what part of the body his name is, so he may cut it out with a knife he has drawn. This seems to imply Romeo’s desire to be dead, rather than be without Juliet.
Initially, at the beginning of this scene, Capulet will have no talk of marriage, due to the recent death in the family. However, in order to help Juliet through her “grief” over Tybalt’s death, Capulet decides to marry her off to Paris (III, iv). Of course this is a problem as she is secretly married to Romeo at this time. In III, v, Lady Capulet states, “I’ll send one in Mantua, where that same banished runagate doth live, that he shall soon keep Tybalt company…” (ll94-96). This statement prophesizes Romeo’s death later in the final scene of the play. Then, Lady Capulet wishes her daughter to be married to her grave (ll. 145), which is ironic, as Juliet will take a potion causing her to appear dead in IV, ii. That same evening, the lovers consummate their marriage, and in the morning, Juliet makes yet another prophesy, “O God, I have an ill-divining soul! Methinks I see thee, now thou art below, as one dead in the bottom of a tomb. Either my eyesight fails me, or thou lookest pale” (ll.55-58).
Consequently, she seeks the counsel of the Friar. Juliet threatens to kill herself if he will not help her, as she, like Romeo, believes that death is the only solution. The Friar suggests she “go through” with the wedding, and discusses a plan with her of simulating her death with a potion that will put her into a very deep sleep. With the Friar’s plan at hand, Juliet “fantasizes about being surrounded by corpses, and she herself being a “fresh” corpse (IV, i).
In IV, iii, Juliet says to the Nurse, “Farewell! God knows when we shall meet again,” (ll.15) giving a prelude to her own apparent death. Juliet then ponders what she will do if the potion does not work, and decides to take a dagger with her to bed. She hopes that she will be able to use the dagger if she wakes in the morning to truly dispense
herself from the world (ll.22-24). She continues her banter, afraid that she will wake up next to Tybalt’s dead body before Romeo can exhume her. She also becomes fearful of suffocation from the unhealthy fumes in the catacomb (ll.31-36). Finally, in this dismal speech, she closes with the fact that if she is not exhumed quickly after waking, that she will go mad at the sight of Tybalt’s freshly dead body, and take a bone and smash her brains in (ll.50-55).
Meanwhile, the Friar is trying to get word to Romeo of his plan to join the two lovers. So, he sends a messenger to Mantua to deliver a letter with the details to Romeo (IV, i). On the morning of the wedding, Juliet is found “dead” by her Nurse, and the wedding turns into a funeral (IV, v). Unfortunately for Romeo, word of the Friar’s plan was delayed by a plague (death). Ironically, Balthasar does not have a problem delivering the news of Juliet’s death to Romeo. The scene opens with Romeo’s prophetic dream, “I dreamt that my lady came and found me dead….” (ll.6). Moments later, Balthasar delivers his somewhat inaccurate news to Romeo, “Her body sleeps in Capel’s monument, and her immortal part with angels lives” (ll.18-19). After Balthasar departs, Romeo decides that he is going to an apothecary, so that he can poison himself and lie with Juliet (ll.36-54). The apothecarist is hesitant to sell the poison to Romeo, but finally gives him a powerful poison (ll.60-89).
In the final scene, Paris is mourning over Juliet’s death, and as he spies a torch, he hides. Romeo arrives on the scene with Balthasar, and Romeo asks Balthasar to do two things, deliver a letter to his family in the morning, and not to come to the grave no matter what he hears (ll.23-27). Romeo goes on to threaten Balthasar with death if he comes to investigate what Romeo is doing (ll.33-36). Before he opens the grave, Romeo addresses the grave, “Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death, gorged with the dearest morsel of the earth, thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open, and in despite I’ll cram thee with more food” (ll45-48). Here we see Romeo personify the grave, and shows anger towards it for eating Juliet. He finally offers himself to the grave as well (V, iii). Paris emerges, as he thinks that Romeo is desecrating the grave, and the two men duel. Romeo cannot see the other man, and slays him. Paris asks that Romeo lay his body beside that of Juliet, and Romeo says he will. Upon spying the face of the slain man, Romeo discovers that it is Mercutio’s kinsman, the County Paris. He obliges the dead man and
lays him in the tomb.
When in the tomb, Romeo looks at Juliet and says, “Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath, hath had no power yet upon thy beauty…That unsubstantial Death is amorous, and that the lean abhorred monster keeps thee here in dark to be his paramour?” (ll.92-105). Here Romeo comments that Death, personified, has not yet taken away Juliet’s beauty. He then goes on to state that Death is keeping Juliet as its wife. At the end of his monologue, Romeo drinks the poison and dies.
The Friar arrives upon the scene a bit to late, but is there to greet Juliet when she awakens. The sight is too horrible for him, and he leaves Juliet alone in the tomb. Distraught that there is no more poison left, Juliet stabs herself. At the end of the play, we also learn of the sudden death of Lady Montague, after Romeo’s banishment.
Throughout his play, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare exemplified the death motif in many ways. He used actual deaths, personification of Death, and employed the use of foresight to allude to death and disaster. In doing so in this eloquent manner, his play runs smoothly, and links to other parts very well, into an ironic and twisted tragedy.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. New York: Washington
Square Press, 1959
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