Sins of the Fathers: Romeo and Juliet as Human Sacrifice
By Clifford Stetner
Romeo and Juliet stands as the archetypical love story of Western culture. However, from a slightly different perspective, it becomes a cautionary tale about the consequences of pride, hatred and warfare. The death of the two young lovers serves both as a punishment and a sacrifice (note the setting of hallowed ground and the presence of the dagger and blood, as well as the youth of the victims) which expiates the sins of their fathers. The tragic power of this dear sacrifice overwhelms the feuding families’ hatred for each other and allows for at least a temporary truce. If we take the civil war, rather than the portrait of ideal love, to be Shakespeare’s central theme, Montague and Capulet become the play’s protagonists, their hatred setting the stage for the fatal affair to arise which ultimately destroys their beloved children.
The animosity between the two aging Veronese is presented without explanation of its origin and immediately rendered absurd by their wives’ forbidding them to kill each other, Lady Capulet offering her husband ‘A crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword?’ (1,i,83). It is rendered serious again by the prince who pronounces a penalty of death for fighting in Verona’s streets. It is their fathers’ stubborn pride and refusal to set aside their differences, even after the cause of their strife seems forgotten which eventually results in the death of the lovers. The character flaw belongs to the older generation, as does the final tragedy.
The behavior of the fathers of Romeo and Juliet with respect to each other contrasts distinctly with their behavior towards their offspring. Although Capulet’s treatment of his daughter becomes excessively severe in one scene (3,v,142ff), his adoring love for her is constant. The directness and restraint of his speech, upon finding his daughter apparently dead in her chamber indicate Capulet’s depth of affection for his child. (4,v,25ff)
It is only the tender love of Capulet and Montague for their children that humanizes them and prevents them from becoming comic figures. Although it is the nurse who tells the sentimaental story of Juliet’s weaning and her fall as a toddler(1,iii,11), these images reinforce the audience’s perception of her character as a juvenile object of parental affection. In all respects besides her passionate love of Romeo, she is a child and the only child remaining to her parents (1,ii,14).
When Paris first sues for her hand, it is clear that her father does not, as was often the case with young girls in medieval Europe (and also in the romantic literature of the period), see her only as a means to social advancement. He even suggests that he intends to leave the choice of a husband up to his thirteen year old daughter. His only reason for this remarkably liberal attitude seems to be his affection for her.
Montague’s concern over his son’s depressed mood early in the first act likewise displays a sincere paternal tenderness that he maintains throughout. Comparing his son to ‘a bud bit by an envious worm/Ere he can spread his sweet leaves to the air,’ he pleads to young Benvolio that: ‘Could we but learn from whence his sorrows grow/We would as willingly give cure as know’ (1,I,157).
Montague is a father who would pass modern standards of parental sensitivity. His response to his son’s adolescent turmoil may be contrasted to that of Henry IV in his relations with Prince Hal. Part One of Henry IV opens with the prince already in an advanced stage of debauch. His complaint is different in nature from Romeo’s, but it is no less adolescent (albeit Hal is probably somewhat older than Romeo); however, his father takes a more conventional Elizabethan approach to paternal relations, reminding Hal of his filial duty and insisting that he straighten up and fly right (3,ii,4ff).
Perhaps the question of responsibity is of greater relevance to the heir to a royal throne than to a pair of Italian teenagers, and it is for this reason that the king focuses on Hal’s offences against him and against his own reputation, while Montague is only concerned with his son’s happiness. In any case, it is Montague’s apparent doting upon Romeo that makes the tragedy of Romeo’s death more Montague’s than Romeo’s. After all, what more perfect conclusion can one hope for in a perfect love than to embark upon eternity in eachother’s arms? It is their parents who have been left desolate by the loss of the repository of all their hopes.(1,ii,14)
It may be that Shakespeare intended the civil war between Montague and Capulet to serve as a backdrop in his depiction of the tragic progress of an ideal love. Or it may be that he intended the death of two young children to serve as the tragic consequence of unyielding hatred. He was himself both the lover who penned the sonnets, as well as a father of young children and would have been capable of lamenting either tragedy. Perhaps he knew that the theme of the play might change as we, the audience, get older, as we become less certain that youthful passion is the end all and be all of existence, as we become less willing to forgive Friar Lawrence for perpetrating such a deception upon Juliet’s parents.(4,v,33) But this would assume him to have written for posterity rather than for the immediate requirements of the Elizabethan stage. It is more likely that he saw the drama as an organic whole, with neither the hatred of parent for parent, nor the love of parent for child, nor the love of child for child foremost. As exalted as human emotions may be, they never exist in a vacuum.
Shakespeare, William. ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Five Tragedies. Ed. C.H. Hereford. Arden Shakespeare. London: D.C. Heath, 1916. v-235.