During the time of Shakespeare, it was understood that a play described as a comedy would be one that “implies a positive understanding of human experience [. . . .] a marriage or at least some kind of union or reunion that resolves the conflict and brings the characters into a state of harmony” (McDonald, 2001, 81).
This describes the storyline of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet: it is a comedy that by modern standards would be sub-categorized as dark because much of the storyline isn’t humorous; however, the culminating events include a reunion and (a precarious) harmony among the feuding Montagues and Capulets. The plot of Romeo and Juliet is not unique: the concept of—boy meets girl—boy courts girl—boy loses girl—is the center of many other stories, but the impact left by the wave of comedy which is created by such plot lines makes the theme one that is timeless.
It seems inevitable that Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet will overcome the feuding of their families, marry, and live happily ever-after; however, this is not to be, for the lovers are “star-crossed” (Romeo and Juliet, Prologue). The play builds to its dénouement—the dual suicides of Romeo and Juliet—by taking the audience though the lives of the two youngsters as they attempt to overcome their familial origins. By the time the audience realizes that the two lovers will unite only in death, the impact is profound.
What’s here? A cup, clos’d in my true love’s hand?
Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.
[. . . .]
O happy dagger!
[Snatches Romeo’s dagger.]
This is thy sheath; there rest, and let me die.
She stabs herself and falls [on Romeo’s body]. (V. iii. 205-206; 212-215)
It is a wave that has been built slowly throughout the play—one that remains with an audience member perhaps indefinitely.
The war between the Montagues and the Capulets has raged for years, and part of the tragedy which becomes darkly comedic in this piece is that the barrier that stands between Romeo and Juliet is nothing but a word: specifically a surname. During her famous balcony speech, Juliet, thinking aloud to herself says,
O Romeo, Romeo,
wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name. (II.i.74–76)
Juliet is asking the universe not where her love is, but why Romeo is a Montague. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations would describe the situation thusly: “one might say: the ostensive definition explains the use—the meaning—of the word when the overall role of the word in language is clear” (Wittgenstein, L, #30). In other words, the reason Romeo and Juliet cannot wed has been determined by the definition—the “role”—their respective surnames play.
A truly effective comedy builds slowly, creates tension-filled expectation, and comes to a resolution that leaves a reader or an audience member with a long-lasting memory of the event. Shakespeare creates this in Romeo and Juliet by establishing the “meaning” of the surnames of his characters, and placing each into his/her respective “role.”
McDonald, R. (2001). The Bedford companion to Shakespeare: An introduction with documents. (2nd ed.). Boston: Bedford.
Shakespeare, W. (1992). Romeo and Juliet. (B. A. Mowat ; P. Werstine, Ed.) The new Folger library. New York: Washington Square.
Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical investigations. The Galilean library. Retrieved November 29, 2006 from http://www.galilean-library.org/pi3.html.
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