Friday, July 13, 2012

Conflict in Romeo and Juliet

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Romeo and Juliet is a play rich in themes and moral messages. Some of these include love, hatred, loyalty and tragedy; however, the theme most consistent throughout the text is the theme of conflict. Despite the fact that outwardly, the entire storyline is based on the theme of love, it is the dispute, which serves as a backdrop to the other themes, and increases their importance within the storyline, that is the fundamental concept. Thus, conflict is the dominant theme in Romeo and Juliet.

We see many examples of conflict within the play, and there is a constant feeling of tension caused by the feud. This is continually emphasized through characters with a violent nature such as Tybalt and Mercutio. While the dramatic conclusion of the play is tragic, the moral message behind the story is ultimately positive, and Shakespeare uses the characters as vehicles to convey these ideas.

Conflict is often illustrated through the use of swordplay and violence. This also gives the play a dramatic effect. We are first introduced to conflict as a theme in the first scene of the play, in which Sampson and Gregory are discussing the feud in a comical manner, and then provoke the Capulets, which eventually leads to bickering and swords being drawn

“Draw thy tool. Here comes of the house of Montagues.”

To which Sampson responds

“My naked weapon is out. Quarrel. I will back thee.”

The two Capulets provoke the Montagues by ‘biting their thumbs.’ Consequently, there is bickering between the two families, and they continue to exchange insulting remarks until both Tybalt and Benvolio arrive on the scene. Benvolio’s persistent suggestion of peace is no match for Tybalt’s violent words

“What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word,

As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.

Have at thee, coward!”

…And the fighting continues. Later, we see the older generation join the youth in their bickering, which only ceases when the Prince arrives and speaks of his strong disapproval of their dispute.

This scene introduces the audience to the dispute, and exemplifies the depth and intensity of the families’ hatred of each other.

In addition, an ideal example of conflict within the play is Act III Scene 1, in which a dramatic chain of events leads to Romeo’s banishment from Verona. The conflict arises when Mercutio foolishly provokes the potentially dangerous Tybalt

“And but one word with one of us? Couple it with something. Make it a word and a blow.”

To which Tybalt readily responds

“You shall find me apt enough to that sir, an you will give me occasion.”

The subsequent fighting and the resultant deaths associated with the swordplay communicate the theme of conflict to the audience.

These violent scenes demonstrate the importance of family loyalty, and how it relates to conflict. In modern film versions of the play, guns replace swords. But however the violence is perpetrated, deadly fighting is a dramatic effect that lets the audience know that conflict is the major theme.

There are several characters which convey the theme of conflict through their actions. First and foremost, there is Tybalt. Sometimes considered the villain of the play, Tybalt’s violent nature and provocative behaviour illustrates the intensity of the feud between the two families. While he is generally of a more aggressive temperament than the rest of the characters, we learn from him the depth of the sub-culture and social conditioning which the younger generation have been subjective to

“What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word

As I hate all hell, all Montagues, and thee.

Have at thee, coward!”

We see this again in Act I Scene 5, when Tybalt overhears Romeo speaking about Juliet

“This, by his voice, should be a Montague.

Fetch me my rapier, boy. What dares the slave

Come hither, coverd with an antic face,

To fleer and scorn at our solemnity?

Now, by the stock and honour of my kin,

To strike him dead, I hold it not a sin.”

These fierce words clearly demonstrate the profound enmity between the two families, and the fact that the younger generation have been raised with the knowledge that the other family is their archenemy.

Furthermore, there is the character of Mercutio. While he does not share Tybalt’s aggressively violent streak, Mercutio nonetheless influences the conflict with his outgoing, somewhat cocky nature. This attribute eventually costs him his life, as it is he who provokes Tybalt into fighting him

“And but one word with one of us? Couple it with something. Make it a word and a blow.”

When Tybalt responds with sharp insults, he goes on to say threateningly

“Consort? What, dost thou make us minstrels? An thou make mistrels of us, look to hear nothing but discords. Here’s my fiddlestick. Here’s that shall make you dance. Zounds, consort!”

When Tybalt further insults his family by rudely referring to Romeo as his servant, Mercutio retorts in a dignified manner

“But I’ll be hanged, sir, if he wear your livery.

Marry, go before to field, he’ll be your follower!

Your worship in that sense may call him ‘man’.”

Mercutio’s responses demonstrate the importance of family loyalty within the play. As Tybalt has insulted Romeo, Mercutio’s friend and fellow Montague, he is further enraged. This segment of the play exemplifies the significance of allegiance within the families.

Although he does not possess Tybalt’s violent streak, nor Mercutio’s arrogant nature, Romeo also contributes to the theme of conflict, particularly in the scene in which he seeks fatal revenge on Tybalt after Mercutio’s untimely death. Here, we see a character that has previously been known to avoid conflict actively pursue it because he wishes to seek vengeance for his friend and ally’s death. It is here that we begin to discover the depth of the family loyalty Romeo feels it is his duty, as a Montague, to kill Tybalt in return for Mercutio’s death, and in the heat of the moment he forgets that there will be consequences and places his loyalty to his family over loyalty over Juliet

“Alive in triumph, and Mercutio slain!

Away to heaven respective lenity,

And fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!

Now, Tybalt, take the ‘villain’ back again

That late thou gavest me. For Mercutio’s soul

Is but a little way above our heads,

Staying for thine to keep him company.

Either thou or I, or both, must go with him.”

From these segments of the play, we learn that family loyalty, pride, and justice are all deeply held values in both families. Unfortunately, it is these principles that lead to the many deaths and frequent conflict within the play.

While it may seem that there is much tragedy within Romeo and Juliet, the underlying moral messages are ultimately positive. From the tragic deaths and constant discord within the play, we learn that petty disagreements should be ended, for they are rarely productive and often lead to misfortune. Secondly, Romeo and Juliet’s undying love for each other, which remains strong despite their respective family’s enmity, teaches us that true love can conquer all. They manage to overcome great obstacles to be married, to consummate their marriage, and to live united for eternity.

The fact that they are unable to escape the confines of family hatred demonstrates that children are often victims of their parents inflexible decisions, as it is the dissension between the two families which eventually costs them their most precious and irreplaceable possessions their only children. And it is only after this acute realisation that they are able to unite. As Charles Horton Cooley so wisely observed

When one ceases from conflict, whether because he has won, because he has lost, or because he cares no more for the game, the virtue passes out of him.

In this way, Shakespeare uses the characters as vehicles to convey moral messages. One of the reasons Romeo and Juliet is still considered an eternal literary work is because the messages portrayed within the play are perpetual. Any person of any time, language or culture can understand the concepts explored because they are basically natural human behaviours. As Hilaire Beloc aptly stated

All men have an instinct for conflict at least, all healthy men.

The importance of loyalty to others, justice, and the destructive tendencies of humans are just a few of the more noticeable concepts. Therefore, there are many valuable lessons to be learnt from the conflict within Romeo and Juliet, some of which are obvious, and others of which are hidden within the many layers of the storyline.

The recurrent theme of conflict within the play is, as we have established, the key focus in Romeo and Juliet, as it is demonstrated by the actions of various characters, repeatedly an issue between the two families, and ultimately is responsible for the tragic events within the play.

Without the foundation of the feud and constant fighting as a result, the other themes would have lesser importance. Hence, conflict, which imparts the sub-themes we have examined, (family feud, hatred, sub-cultures, loyalty etc.) is the primary and most consistent theme within Romeo and Juliet. As Martin Luther King so fittingly stated

“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

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